FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
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Continuing BOOK OF THE GODS, the series that kicked off with THE FACE OF APOLLO and ARIADNE'S WEB, New York Times --best selling author Fred Saberhagen (The BERSERKER® Series) again puts his own twist on Greek mythology in Book III, THE ARMS OF HERCULES.
Hercules is the son of the nearly omnipotent Zeus, King of the Gods, and of a human mother whose beauty sparked the great god's lust. The arms of Hercules look no more muscular than those of many other men -- but his father was the greatest god in the entire world. Hercules, the son of Zeus, has crushed monsters, giants, and legendary warriors in combat.
Until one challenge remains: the harrowing underworld, the one place where strength does not matter. Hercules is pitted against the greatest monsters that classical literature and Saberhagen's vivid imagination could create and his struggle comes to life in his fight to the death, against Death itself.
--From the Tor paperback cover blurb.
I do not sing this story, for I have neither the patience nor the voice to hold an audience. Rather I will write it down, so I will have the time to choose my words, and amend them as I go along. Those who wish to read may do so. Those who do not will be under no compulsion to appear polite.
I have, among other things, this in common with all other members of the human race: that the seed of my life was planted, the roots began to grow, before I could be there to witness any part of the process. Therefore I can tell the first chapter of my story only in the form in which others who were there have told it to me.
Years ago, in the kingdom of Cadmia, there came a certain summer night, on which the prophet Tiresias, in vivid dreams, beheld the descent of the mightiest of living gods. A few hours later, when Tiresias awakened to the first birdsongs of the bright spring morning, he climbed from his bed and called unhurriedly for his servants and his guards, sending his young companion to seek them out. The blind seer was an old man then, and he had been an old man for a long time, but the joints of his limbs still moved freely enough, all the vital parts of his body functioned, and he still craved young girls. As a member of the king's household, in a high position, he had the power to indulge his craving. His companion on that morning was a girl, and very young.
The prophet enjoyed the sound of young girls' voices, and the touch of their smooth skins, but whether or not they were beautiful in the world's eyes was a matter of total indifference to him.
When he could be bothered to explain his preferences to anyone, he put it this way: "In the first place, the dear little creatures are more grateful for the attention; and in the second place, very few of them deserve to be called ugly. You are handicapped in your vision by having eyes, and I can see the girls much better than you can."
The prophet himself, on the other hand, was ugly by almost any standard. He had been eyeless since birth. His face had eyebrows, but under them there were no lids to break the smooth expanse of skin, and the skull had no accommodating sockets.
Preparing their master for that unexpected morning foray out into the world took the servants a little time. For this purpose they arrayed him in his own and his servants' idea of barbaric splendor, garments of bright colors and fine cloth, golden rings around his arms and in his earlobes. Tiresias bore all these procedures patiently, for he wanted to be sure not to arrive too soon at his destination. It was two hours after sunrise when he left his apartment in one wing of the king's palace, and set out on the road.
When he left the palace on that morning of birdsongs and sunlight he went singing, in a cracked voice, some ancient song that no one else who was still alive in the kingdom of Cadmia had ever heard before. He mounted for his ride with his arm round the bored-looking young girl who had shared his bed. As far as anyone knew, there was no tie of blood between them, though the girl was certainly ugly enough to be his descendant. She might possibly have been a daughter or a great-granddaughter, carried to almost any number of iterations that you care to name.
When the ill-matched couple had climbed aboard the mastodrom it started walking, and the bodies of both passengers lurched with the motion of the howdah that rode just forward of the great beast's single hump. The huge, phlegmatic mastodrom had been brought at great expense from somewhere south of the Great Sea. A wizened little driver, a male of indeterminate age, sat straddling the animal's neck, guiding its motion with slight pressures of his callused feet, just behind its huge fanlike ears.
"Where are we going?" the girl asked, doubtless hoping that the day would bring some break in her routine.
"There is a house that has been visited by a god," the old man said to her. "And the man of the house does not know about it yet. I want to be the first to tell him."
"And the woman of the house?" the girl asked, when the mastodrom had carried them on a few more rocking paces.
The blind man laughed. "Ah, she knows already that she has had a visitor. She knows that in much more detail than I do. But who the visitor was--that will be a big surprise, I think!" And his laughter boomed out, as loudly as if he were still young and healthy.
Accompanying Tiresias, besides his youthful concubine, was an escort permanently assigned to him by King Eurystheus, a squad of half a dozen armed men on their own smaller and more agile mounts. The seer did not really want them, or believe he needed their protection, but the old king insisted that they always go with him; and this morning Tiresias had made sure they were alerted for his foray.
The morning's journey was only a few miles. Less than an hour after it began, the chief of the armed escort reined in his own much smaller mount, an ordinary cameloid, and turned closer to the mastodrom to tell its passenger that they had reached their destination. The estate on which I was conceived and born was a large and important one. The manor house was only a few miles outside the seven-gated city wall of Cadmia, whose massive stones were just visible in the distance from our own front gate.
The blind old man seemed somehow to know exactly where he was as well as anyone. Even before the soldier began to speak, the prophet turned from the public road to face the great ornamental gates of the estate, lifted his chin and called out loudly: "Open, Alcmene, lady of the manor! I bring you marvelous news!" Eyewitnesses of the event confirm that the seer did not call for Amphitryon: thus even at that time he knew that the lord of the manor was not at home.
Amphitryon, who for many years was called my father, was a nephew of the late King Electryon of Megara, and had been banished to Cadmia, as a result of one of the intrigues afflicting that royal family like so many others. (According to family tradition, Zeus was his great-great grandfather; and a similar tradition in my mother's family gave her the same god as male ancestor eight generations even farther back; in truth almost every family aspiring to high social status claimed divine blood.)
There was a pause, while the gatekeeper inside sent some junior servant running for instructions, up the long hill to where the big house stood amid its ornamental plantings.
Meanwhile, out on the road in the sunlight of the summer morning, Tiresias waited patiently, still singing. There were moments, even epochs, in which Tiresias seemed but little aware of what was going on in the world around him. The special seats with which his howdah was equipped were shaded by a canopy, and insured that the waiting would be comfortable. His armed escort, taking their cue from him, were patient also. But what they thought of the quality of his song could be seen from the expressions on their faces.
Tiresias was by far the most famous prophet in Cadmia, or for many and many a mile around. Some said he was a child of Zeus, one of the Thunderer's uncountable bastards who were scattered all around the world, and that this explained both his deformity and his occult powers. Whatever the truth of that theory, I do not remember that Tiresias ever denied it.
The seer did not seem to object to being kept waiting in this way. Every minute or so the mastodrom swayed restlessly, treating its passengers to a soporific rocking. Meanwhile the tuskless creature groped about with its trunk, which was shorter than an elephant's, but bifurcated for half its length, and therefore almost as handy. When the time came, the mastodrom would use its flexible trunk to help its passengers dismount.
On that summer morning Alcmene, she who was to be my mother, awoke stretching on rare and expensive silken sheets, her body luxuriously sated by a night of tempestuous lovemaking, the like of which she could not recall. Somewhat to her surprise and disappointment, she found her bedpartner gone when she turned in the direction of the empty pillow beside her own.
Her dreams, when at last her husband's importunities had allowed her to fall asleep, had been vaguely disturbing.
At the time of which I write, my mother was still considered a remarkable beauty, though the first years of her youth were past.
Pulling on a robe, a thin wrap designed to display her superb figure, she went out into the hall. The first servant she encountered was actually on his way to tell her of the unexpected caller at the gate, but she brushed aside this news and demanded: "Where is the master this morning?"
The question earned her a blank look. "Where should he be, mistress? Still a great many miles from home, I fear."
My mother's protests died on her lips, even as she heard the news of the distinguished visitor; already a fearful suspicion had been aroused in her heart. There might be something seriously wrong. But what could it be? She knew, unquestioningly, that her husband had come home quite unexpectedly about midnight, and had been with her through the remainder of the night, joined to her very closely most of that time. But now his familiar presence had vanished, completely and unaccountably.
Alcmene looked into room after room, but there was no sign of Amphitryon anywhere, nor of his weapons, nor of the clothing and the armor that he must have been wearing when he came home from the wars, must have discarded before coming in to her. She could clearly remember hearing his weapons and his breastplate clang together when they were thrown down on the floor.
Another servant, hurriedly dispatched to reconnoiter, came swiftly back to report that the cameloid Amphitryon always rode was not in the stable.
Now the Lady Alcmene had to put her uneasiness momentarily aside to greet her illustrious caller, as Tiresias, the king's adviser, was being conducted to the house and offered refreshment.
When she entered the room where he was waiting, the eyeless man turned his pale face toward her. If he was aware of what effect his appearance could have, at close range, to one who was not accustomed to it, he made no allowance for it.
He said: "I wish to speak to your husband, my dear, as soon as he comes home. That should be soon."
Despite the servants' evidence, Alcmene was on the point of correcting her visitor, telling him that her husband had been home for many hours. But she remained silent, remembering how the servants had already started to react to that claim, absolutely refusing (though silently and subserviently, of course) to believe her.
She never even considered the possibility that the events of the night just past might have been a dream. Whatever else might have happened to her, it was not that. Dreams did not leave the dreamer's body pleasurably sore, and bedsheets stained.
While servants spread through the household in a futile, half-hearted search for a master they knew could not possibly be there, old Tiresias began to explain to my mother the reason for his visit.
"Young lady, last night I saw the great god, all-powerful Zeus himself, descending on this house. I saw the Thunderer enter your bedchamber, and what transpired there, between the two of you."
"Merciful gods!" the lady murmured, low-voiced. her first thought was that the man who stood before her now was mad.
His voice, though, was horrifyingly reasonable. "But even from me"--he thumped his chest--"from me, Tiresias, the why of the matter is still concealed."
The lady drew a deep breath. Her second thoughts were even more frightening than her first.
"If," she began, "if, as I say, my Lord Tiresias, anything of the kind had happened . . . "
But the lady was spared any effort at deception. The seer had turned his blind head and was listening to sounds from another direction.
A moment later, the unexpected return of Alcmene's husband was announced, by a servant who at least pretended to be joyful as he proclaimed the news.
The fact was, of course, that until the night when my true father first visited my mother, Alcmene had enjoyed a justly deserved reputation for chastity. The great god Zeus knew this, of course, and so for the duration of his visit, which lasted only a few hours, he had assumed the likeness of her husband. If you know anything of the history of Zeus, in legend and in fact, you will not be surprised.
The legends will tell you also that to make sure Alcmene was thoroughly deceived, Zeus gave her a gift of a golden cup, which Amphitryon could have captured from his chief opponent in the war, and also told her of many thing that had happened on the battlefield. Later, when Amphitryon tried to tell her of his adventures, she amazed him by filling in some details he had forgotten. But on the truth of these particular stories I make no judgment.
Usually Alcmene was genuinely glad to welcome her husband home. But this time it was with a heavy, sinking feeling, that she first saw Amphitryon, as he came riding in with two or three companions, all of them dismounting from their cameloids with weary groans. She felt nothing at all the lightening of spirit with which she usually witnessed his arrival.
The general was really of no more than ordinary size, but so strongly built, with powerful hands and arms, that he seemed larger. He was about forty then, considerably older that his wife. Much of his long hair had already turned gray, which secretly annoyed him, though it gave him more credibility as a leader. His eyes were gray too, and they could turn very cold and hard.
"Hello, wife. We've ridden all night." Amphitryon had arrived wearing helmet and breastplate, just as his surrogate had on the preceding night, and his round shield hung from the horn of his war-drom's saddle. The returning general was in good health, but looked somewhat dirty, tired, and worn, after a journey of several days.
He came to his wife and kissed her hungrily, locking her in an embrace. If the general had not been entirely without women for the past several months (and he certainly had not), he had endured that time without the one woman he preferred above all others.
Iphicles, my half-brother-to-be, then a mere beardless fourteen years of age, (not very large but strongly built; a younger edition of his father) awakened by the stirring in the house around him, came running to welcome his father home, demanding at once to hear tales of glorious battle.
Answering Iphicles, Amphitryon said: "Well enough, I suppose. I suppose we win more than we lose, if we count up all the scores. Well, this is not the first year that this war has taken up our time, and I don't suppose it'll be the last. But enough about battles. I've come home for a rest."
When the tired general finally took notice of Tiresias and his squad of escorting soldiers, he was surprised.
"To what do we owe this honor, Soothsayer? Has the king sent you?" Amphitryon tried to keep out of his voice the disgust he felt in looking at the eyeless face.
"I am here by reason of a greater power than King Eurystheus." Tiresias smiled faintly, as if he could still hear the general's loathing in his guarded speech. "Amphitryon, I bring you news of your extraordinary misfortune."
The general's shoulders slumped, and for a long moment he stared in silence at the prophet. Then he looked around him, making sure that the members of his immediate family were all well. But Amphitryon, who did not know yet that he was to be my foster father, was too well acquainted with the seer, or at least with his reputation, not to take him seriously. "If you bring bad news, let me hear it in private."
Giving the prophet his arm, he guided him to an inner room, and shut the door.
When the two men were alone, and Tiresias settled in a comfortable chair, he raised his blind face toward the warmth of cloud-filtered sunlight coming in a window. Then, at the sudden passing of the cloud from in front of the sun, he tilted his head away from the light, as if its new brightness hurt him in some way.
The general half-sat on the edge of a table, folding his arms and swinging one leg. "Well, sir?"
"Last night your house was visited by a god," the prophet told Amphitryon bluntly.
"Indeed." It took the general a little while to come to grips with this announcement. Like the great majority of people anywhere, even those of high rank, he had never in his life seen any god. Had any one else told him the same thing, he would have laughed. But this was Tiresias.
"Which god?" Amphitryon demanded at last. "And for what purpose?"
"It was the Thunderer himself. As for his immediate purpose, it was the same that generally brings Zeus to the bed of a lovely mortal." The blind man raised a cautionary hand. "You ought not to blame your wife, for the god appeared in a perfect semblance of yourself. Any mortal would have been deceived."
For almost a full minute after the general heard those words, he seemed unable to speak. At last he managed to choke out a brief response: "But why?"
The question got no answer--not then. At that time the seer knew no more than the cuckolded general exactly what purpose Zeus might have had in committing this outrage, beyond relieving his chronic lust. No doubt that was purpose enough for the Thunderer, to whom legend attributed all the fine moral stature of a rutting beast.
Tiresias had to repeat his unwelcome message to the general several times before he began to believe what he was being told.
Amphitryon's first reaction, when at last he began truly to believe what he was being told, was violent anger. Jealous rage swelled in him, and he stalked about, muttering.
Then he stopped and looked at the closed door of the room. "Where is my wife now?"
"It will do no good to question her," the seer advised him.
But Amphitryon, angry, would not listen to advice. Summoning Alcmene, he brought her into the room and closed the door again, shutting the three of them off from the rest of the world, and made her listen to the prophet's story.
In a low and deadly voice he ordered: "Tell my wife what you have just told me."
"Tell her yourself." Tiresias, himself more puzzled and uncertain than he wanted to admit, was in no mood to be ordered about.
"What have you to say to that?" the general demanded of his wife.
"Oh, my lord. I don't know what to say." She who had just become my mother felt confused and injured--and at the same time, secretly, gloriously honored, at the thought that the greatest god in the universe had chosen her as his lover, if only for a night.
Her first thought, on hearing the prophet's revelation, had been that Zeus had simply lusted after her; only now, as she listened to the two men talking, did it occur to Alcmene that she might be going to bear the god's offspring.
Mixed in with shame and surprise, my mother felt a wonder and a gratitude that she dared not show. She fixed pleading eyes on Amphitryon. "My lord . . . I repeat, I don't know what to say. Last night I was sure that I was with you--as I am sure of your identity at this moment."
Her husband grunted something, a stunned and almost unintelligible sound. "For now," he said at last. "Better go on about the business of the household."
Obediently Alcmene bowed her head and moved away. When she was gone, her husband turned back to Tiresias.
"Prophet, I am sorry if I spoke rudely to you a moment ago. I apologize, and humbly I ask your advice."
The blind head nodded slowly. "Your apology is accepted, great general. My first advice is that you do nothing in haste or anger."
Amphitryon might not have heard him. He almost seemed to be mumbling to himself. Another wave of shame and anger had come over him, and seemed about to overwhelm him. "The law says--tradition has always said--that a woman so grossly unfaithful can be--even should be-- burned alive."
Before he could even begin to pursue that idea, there came what might have been a response, that effectively prevented any serious consideration. A burst of savage thunder sounded from not far overhead. Looking out the window, the general gazed incredulously at the thick clouds which had been gathering, with amazing swiftness, since his arrival home.
Moments later, rain poured down. There would be no outdoor fires today, anywhere in this vicinity.
Over the next few hours and days, suspicions of some baser plot began to creep in on Amphitryon, taking possession of his imagination. For a time, even despite the warning cloudburst and its lightning, he almost managed to convince himself that Zeus was not really involved. Rather it seemed to him possible that the king or someone else had been playing him false, and Tiresias was in on the plot somehow.
My young half-brother Iphicles moped about for a day or two after his father came home, upset by the knowledge of what had happened, and worried about what might be going to happen next. Any suggestion that his mother might be burned would have terrified him, but fortunately for his peace of mind, he never had to hear it.
Tiresias and his armed escort took their leave of the estate on the afternoon of the day of their arrival. The ancient seer was accustomed to unpopularity, but he was still unshakably certain that he had seen the god descend.
Of course the Seer made sure that his concubine was with him when he left. Meanwhile she had spent the time chatting with the kitchen girls, delaying them in their work; and Tiresias in the intervals of his own conversations had enjoyed listening to their voices, even at a distance.
And that is basically the story of that day as it has been told to me. There are questions which I have never been able to answer to my own satisfaction. For example: was it Tiresias who told the general what my name was to be? If so, was it his own idea, or did it come from Zeus? And did the seer advise that the name should be well publicized, on the theory that calling the child "beloved of Hera" might forestall the wrath of the Thunderer's jealous spouse?
In any case, I can now assure you, with the benefit of first-hand experience, that the gods, the real gods, are not bound in their behavior by what the legends say they ought to do, how they ought to feel.
The next days--then weeks, and months--were difficult for everyone on the estate. Amphitryon, like any other general, was not averse to handing out punishments when he deemed them necessary--he enforced his will firmly enough, but he took no particular joy in making people suffer.
But he was jealously possessive of Alcmene, and he took his own honor very seriously. In this case there seemed no one else to blame for his wife's infidelity, to punish except her. But any move along that line had been effectively forestalled.
Once Amphitryon had firmly put out of his mind his first wild impulse to burn his wife alive, he meditated taking a great vow never to touch her again, for fear of bringing down on his own head the jealousy of Zeus. And it is a fact that my mother had no more children.
In later years, when my personal history began to be severely confused with legend, until matters had reached a point where even I could scarcely be sure where one ended and the other began, some stories had it that the mother of Hercules, still "fearing Hera's jealousy," caused me to be exposed, shortly after birth, just outside the walls of Cadmia.
There the goddess Hera herself was said to have come upon me by accident, and to have been tricked into nursing me, not realizing that the sturdy infant at her breast was the illegitimate spawn of her lecherous husband.
In fact, the truth about the relationship between the goddess and myself is even a little stranger than the stories. Time and the gods permitting, I will have more to say about it later.
People love wonders almost as much as food and drink, and sometimes more, and so they insist on creating legends. But mere mortals lack the story-telling skill of Fate, and legends tend to be less marvelous than truth.
Some nine months after god and prophet had made their respective visits to our house (visits which were never repeated, by the way) my mother gave birth to me; and an hour after giving birth she was tottering on her feet, sacrificing at the altar of Zeus, giving extravagant thanks that I had not come into the world with a bull's horned head, or any other such overt indication of my paternity--such a consequence of the god's mating with a woman was not unknown.
Years later, Alcmene became fond of telling me that for the first
few months of my life, everyone around me had the impression that I
was entirely normal. Mother always shook her head in wonder when she
told me that.