Stephanie Spinner brings the famous messenger—and the best-known gods and mortals of mythology—to life with high action and spare, powerful prose.
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After I rescued Kore, Zeus took to calling me “Head Psychopomp.” It was a silly title—there’s only one psychopomp, or guide for the dead, on Mount Olympus: me. But the way he said it made me feel important and mysterious, so I never dreamed of objecting. I did dream of going on another mission, however, just to break the routine of my trips to Hell.
So when Zeus summoned me to his audience room one golden summer afternoon, I tied on my sandals and flew over at hawk-chases-sparrow, one of my faster speeds.
I was eager to hear why he needed me.
Zeus, however, took his time getting to the point. Perseus, a young prince, was seeking his help. Like many young mortals, he was Zeus’ son, and this gave him an advantage. Zeus liked to help his offspring.
“I suppose you know he’s mine,” he said.
I nodded. We were sharing a tot of ambrosia while Helios, the Sun God, drove his chariot west. It sank below the horizon, and the sky sang a raucous hymn to red, purple, and gold.
“He’s turned out rather well, considering,” Zeus murmured.
Considering the grief you caused his mother Danae? I thought. Yes, he has. Danae’s troubles began when her father King Acrisius, heard a prophecy that his yet-unborn grandson would kill him. Foolishly hoping to outwit the Fates, he locked Danae in a bronze chamber, where no man could reach her.
No man did.
Zeus was another story.
Ever resourceful when it came to lissome mortal girls, he changed himself into a shower of gold, poured in through Danae’s window, and seduced her.
When Perseus was born, Acrisius feared for his life more than ever, so he locked Danae and the baby into a wooden box and put them out to sea. Eventually they washed up on the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by Dictys, a good-hearted fisherman whose brother Polydectes ruled the island.
“I look in on them sometimes,” Zeus confessed in a whisper. His wife Hera might be near, and her jealousy was volcanic. “Perseus has grown into a fine boy. He’s been trying to fend off Polydectes for more than a year.” The king was infatuated with Danae and kept proposing marriage. She kept refusing. After plying her with sweet words, a heifer, and olives from the mainland, he had resorted to threats.
Perseus was young, strong, and fearless. He told Polydectes defiantly that Danae would not be coerced into marriage. Polydectes had no desire to fight Perseus man-to-man, so he lied, saying he’d decided to marry another woman.
“All my courtiers,” he added, “are giving me fine horses as wedding gifts. You will do that, too, I trust?” He said this knowing how poor the boy was and how proud.
Perseus fell into the trap. “I cannot give you horses,” he said, “but will give you any other gift you wish.”
“Then bring me the head of Gorgon Medusa,” retorted the king.
Medusa, with her snaky hair, poisonous talons, and lethal glare, lived in a cave in Arcadia. She did not welcome visitors, so this was like telling Perseus to go kill himself. Fully aware that the king had tricked him, Perseus accepted the challenge without a blink. Then he went home to tell his mother, and she fainted.
“Polydectes is a swine,” said Zeus.
“And you’re not too busy right now, are you?”
I shook my head. I did not need my gift of prophecy to know what was coming.
“Good. He needs the Adamantine Sickle.”
“Ares has it.”
“Just take it.”
Easy for you to say, I thought. I may be the Prince of Thieves, but Ares, God of War, is three times my size and as touchy as a caged badger, especially in peacetime. As far as I knew, the world was at peace today, so Ares would need delicate handling. But I was foolishly eager for the adventure, so all I said was, “Fine.
Zeus put his hand on my shoulder. “Can you spare your sandals? They would help Perseus a lot.” My winged sandals are my dearest possession. I value them even more than my Cap of Invisibility or Caduceus, my spell-casting wand. My father knew this, of course.
I nodded and he patted me. As always, his approving touch warmed my skin and quickened my heart, so that all I wanted to do was please him.
No wonder you have so many children, I thought. You’re irresistible.
“And keep the boy out of trouble till he finishes the job, won’t you? Make sure he gets back to his mother safely?” Again his voice dropped to a whisper. “Danae—”
He still had a soft spot for her. He was like that. “I know,” I broke in. “She worries about him. Well, he’s perfectly safe with me,” I said, draining my goblet.
I believed it when I said it.
Ares’ weapons room is as scrupulously clean as a shrine to Hesia, Goddess of the Hearth. All its contents are in perfect working order, which is more than I can say for the God of War himself. He’s loud, messy, red eyed, and restless, and when he’s not fuming over some imagined slight, he’s shouting or cursing. When he takes offense—which is often—he bristles like a porcupine and the dark, wiry hair on his shoulders stands straight up. I have seen this. It is a repulsive sight.
Nobody likes him, least of all me, and I confess that when I rapped on the armory’s tall bronze door, I was hoping he wouldn’t be there. Ares wouldn’t dare disobey Zeus’ request for the sickle, but he’d be sure to give me a hard time before handing it over.
I knocked again and there was no response. Lucky me, I thought, opening the door. I’d take the sickle and Zeus would tell Ares why—easier all around.
I stepped inside.
The armory was as I remembered it, a serene place lined floor to ceiling with countless tools of war. Helmets—plumed, gilded, studded, skull topped. Sheathed swords. Two-headed axes. Towering stacks of metal greaves and breastplates. Cuirasses of cloth, hide, and reptile skin, wrinkled and stained with battle sweat. Poisonous decoctions. Massive gold and silver shields, some adorned with grinning shrunken heads. Throwing lances and thrusting lances, all tall as men. And, on its very own gilded stand in the center of the room, like a menacing, razor-sharp smile, the Adamantine Sickle.
Hephaestus, Fire God and master artisan, had made it long ago, forging it in secret out of nobody knew what. He called it Unconquerable, and after demonstrating how it could slice an airborne flower petal, cut three sheaves of wheat with one stroke, and behead a snake as quietly as a whisper, everyone agreed it was a fitting name. When Ares saw the sickle, he wanted nothing else, and after days of haggling, pleading, angry demands and lavish bribes, he finally got Hephaestus to sell it.
The price was so high that Ares wouldn’t reveal it.
I do not like weapons, even when they are as beautiful as the Sickle. This is very ungodlike; all the Olympians bear arms. Ares has his arsenal, Apollo and Artemis their bows, Zeus his thunderbolts. Athena likes to be called the Goddess of Wisdom, but she is never without helmet, aegis, and armor. Even Love Goddess Aphrodite has a little golden dagger tucked into her magic girdle (don’t ask me how I know).
I have always thought this ridiculous. Why should we Immortals carry weapons? Nothing can kill us. Nevertheless, the habit persists. Of all the gods, I alone rely on my wits for protection. It has always been a point of pride with me. Having said this, I’ll confess that when I lifted the sickle off its stand, I fully understood why Ares had craved it so. The thing was as light and supple as a willow switch, falling into the crook of my arm as if it longed to be there. My new death-dealing friend, I thought. It made me feel utterly invincible, as cool and implacable as its silver moon blade.
I will not lie. I liked the feeling.
Arcadia is an easy trip from Olympus, due south over Thessaly and the Gulf of Corinth. Even carrying the sickle, I got there quickly—the day was clear, the winds were helpful, and my spirits were high. Apollo had given me excellent directions to Medusa’s cave—he’s good at that—so I found it easily.
I first saw Perseus from the air. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground beside Athena’s great shield, lobbing pebbles into a hollow tree trunk some twenty paces away. His aim was good.
So were his reflexes. I brushed against a tree branch coming down and he was on his feet, sword in hand, before I landed. He looked around warily and I thought, He’s quick. Excellent.
I took off my cap so that he could see me. “Perseus,” I said in greeting.
“Hermes!” He was sixteen or so, nearly full grown, with a boy’s tremulous voice and a smooth, fine-boned face. Except for the white-gold braid that hung down his back, his pale hair was clipped to the skull. At first glance he looked more like a shepherd than a queen’s son—his hands were rough and his garment was country spun. But his manners were good. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees instantly, bowing his head.
“Rise,” I said, and he sprang to his feet with the awkward grace of a fawn rising out of a nest. “Let’s plan our battle.”
“You’re coming? The goddess didn’t tell me!” Surprise and pleasure transformed his face. Smiling, he was handsome.
“At least she remembered to give you her shield,” I said. Athena’s memory is terrible—except for grudges. Hearing of Perseus’ mission to kill Medusa, she had quickly volunteered her favorite weapon. The shield, polished to a mirror shine, lay on the forest floor, giving us a bright blue oval of sky. “She told you how to use it, I hope?”
He shook his head. “I know I can’t look at Medusa, or I’ll turn to stone like them.” He pointed to a spot through the trees, about a hundred paces away, where a motionless parade of Medusa’s victims approached the cave entrance. They looked startled, incredulous that her stare was lethal, even as it killed them.
“Poor fools,” I said.
I backed away from Perseus. “I’ll be Medusa. Come at me, but look at my reflection in the shield.” I scowled hideously, wiggling my fingers around my head as if they were snakes. He forced a smile, but we both knew that battling the real Medusa was no laughing matter. She, who had once been a pretty young girl with beautiful hair, had remarked that her hair was lovelier than Athena’s, and the silly boast had ruined her.
Hearing it, Athena had turned her into a monster, with live snakes for tresses. Grotesque and miserable, Medusa had retreated to a cave deep in Arcadia. Whatever kinship she had felt for mortals had long since turned to searing hatred. Those who found her found death also: her stare was so frightening that it turned mortal onlookers to stone.
Have I mentioned that the gods can be spiteful?
Now Perseus hoisted the shield with his left hand, grasping his sword with his right. Looking into the shield as if it were a mirror, he came toward me sideways, sword raised.
I hissed as Medusa might, slipping beyond his reach. He lunged at me again, and again I evaded him. He took a deep breath, preparing for another try. To his credit, he kept his dark blue eyes on the shield. This time I screeched and pretended to claw at his shoulder. He would have struck me if I hadn’t used my winged sandals to leap out of range.
“You have the right idea but the wrong tools,” I told him. “Your sword is too short for the job.”
“It’s all I have,” he said, without a hint of self-pity. I liked that.
The Adamantine Sickle was propped against one of the stone bodies near the cave. I retrieved it.
“Here,” I said, offering it. “Try this.”
He took it and his expression shifted from interest to astonishment to wonder. Adjusting his grasp, he looked as blissful as if he’d just received one of Aphrodite’s warmest smiles.
“Better than your sword, don’t you think?”
He hefted it. “Much better,” he said slowly. Then, without warning, he took a quick swing at me that I just barely managed to avoid. When I ducked, he laughed out loud.
I was amazed by his lack of respect. I might look his age, but I was ageless and divine; he knew that. “Careful!” I snapped. “You won’t last long in there if you act like a buffoon.”
At my rebuke his hand tightened around the weapon’s shaft possessively, and I understood. It’s the sickle! I thought. It’s bewitching him. The weapon’s very touch had made me giddy. It could do much worse to Perseus—who, being mortal, lacked the strength of mind that comes with divinity. What if it made him mad? Zeus would never forgive me.
“Don’t get too attached to that thing,” I said sharply. “It belongs to Ares. He’ll want it back.” There’s an understatement, I thought.
“I won’t.” He sounded sincere. But I resolved to watch him like a hawk.