excerpt of Back Across the Styx
Jericho "Serathus" Benavente
She was born on the ferry over the River Styx as her parents fled the underworld. Her father passed her into the arms of her exhausted mother. Then the new parents leaned their foreheads against each other’s in a moment of unparalleled relief: they had escaped the realm past death, and brought forth new life.
On the other end of the boat, the ferryman ceased the long strokes of his pole and held out his palm.
“She wasn’t yet born when we paid,” the mother protested, cradling the girl to herself.
The ferryman looked at her with dark eyes, unmoved.
“We have nothing left,” the father said, anguished.
And so a man and a woman boarded the ferry from the underworld, and a man and a woman disembarked on the other side of the river. Charon stood in his boat and watched them make their way from the reedy banks to the caverns that would lead them to the sunlit lands. In his arms he held a baby, her mouth still golden with her first milk. He named her Myrrine.
Hermes, the messenger god who led the dead to the ferryman, was enjoined to also bring milk for the girl. The waters of the Styx rocked her to sleep, while in her waking hours, she played with the silver drachmas Charon collected as fare. He was a taciturn man, and she learned to speak from the newly dead who rode the ferry to the underworld. Whether the passengers’ lives had been grand or unremarkable, she listened intently to their stories. Charon indulged her; if a tale needed more time for telling, he would slow the ferry.
Her only playmate was Bion, the young son of the rulers of the underworld. With such lineage he was allowed to clamber aboard the boat without any payment, especially as he always returned to the shore he came from. He and Myrrine dreamed of their futures as Charon pushed the ferry down the river.
“When I rule the underworld...”
“When I row the ferry...”
As they grew older, there was a brief period when they traded ambitions, but after meeting Persephone, Myrrine decided that being the queen of the underworld wouldn’t suit her after all. Bion grew disillusioned with becoming a ferryman when he discovered Charon never spent any of his coins.
“How would you, in the underworld?” Myrrine asked.
Bion propped up his chin in one hand and scratched at the beginning bristles of his beard. “Maybe that’s it. We should leave the underworld.”
Charon’s steady strokes faltered for a moment.
Myrrine glanced at her father, but he was gazing out over the Styx. She turned back to Bion. “I thought you couldn’t leave.”
His mouth twisted. “My mother promised my father not to take me out of here. I never swore the same.”
She pressed her hand to his in sympathy. She’d never known a mother, and rather preferred it to the stormy dramatics between Bion’s parents. “You’re of age now. He can’t keep you here much longer.”
His face lightened at the thought and he gave her a grateful smile. “We could go together. Don’t you want to see the land of the living?”
“I’m curious,” she admitted. Stories, no matter how plentiful and varied, could never be as rich as actual experience.
They stared at the distant shore. Charon cleared his throat but didn’t speak. He didn’t need to. If the lord of the underworld didn’t want his son to leave his realm, the ferryman wasn’t going to cross his will.
They didn’t get a chance to speak of it again. War came to batter Greece and keep Charon busy, and Myrrine with him. There was barely any lull between passengers, most of them soldiers who’d fallen in battle. From them she heard about the Persian invaders, how their warriors wore turbans and rode fleet horses, and how far they encroached into Greek lands.
But as much as these stories fascinated her, she missed Bion and his easy conversation. She hadn’t had a chance to see him for weeks, and it felt strange to have gone so long without talking to him. His mother might have already left the underworld, as she did with the turning of the seasons every year, and that was always a difficult time for him.
“Can we wait for Bion?” she asked her father after he delivered the latest boatload. The number of passengers had begun to dwindle.
Charon shook his head, already pushing off to return to the other shore. There must be more dead awaiting a ride to the underworld.
A single man stood on the riverbank. The bronze breastplate over his red tunic marked him as a soldier, while his grim mouth and heavy brow told of recent defeat. He would no doubt tell another tale of a tragic yet glorious battle. She hoped it was one which she hadn’t heard yet.
Her father let the boat push through the reeds to bump into land, and held out his hand.
Myrrine alighted, looking around for Hermes. The messenger god occasionally lingered to greet her after leading the recently passed here, but he had already sped off. He had left a gift, though. A small amphora sat on the ground next to the soldier, and she started toward it, wondering what it held.
The man fumbled at his belt and she shot him a curious glance. Most passengers already had their coin ready before her father even touched ashore. Often it was tucked under their tongues, if a loved one had seen to their final rest.
Then the man yanked her against him and pinned her there with a broad arm across her chest. She squeaked indignantly. Did this man think whores awaited him in the underworld?
Her father lifted his pole as though to hurl it like a javelin.
“How about a different bargain?” the soldier said coolly. “I’ll spare her life in return for passage.”
A cold blade touched her throat. She stopped struggling, not even daring to swallow for fear of cutting herself.
“Steady, girl. I promise I’ll return you to your father unharmed,” he said directly into her ear, his breath hot and unpleasant on her skin. He raised his voice so Charon could hear. “First, you’ll need to do me a favor.”
Charon lowered his pole and cast the man a dark look, but nodded.
The soldier nudged Myrrine. “Pick up the amphora.” She obeyed, and when she straightened, he took it from her and herded her toward the boat. They boarded in slow, synchronous movements to avoid jostling the knife. Once they were in, he said, “Take me across.”
Charon pushed the boat into the river and began to pole them to the other side.
Myrrine bit down on her rage until her jaw ached. How dared this man command her father like this? When the knife eased away a finger span, she demanded, “You’re not even dead, are you?” He stank of sweat and desperation; he reeked of life.
His hold on her tightened briefly, as if she’d startled him by speaking. Was he expecting a demure maiden? “No. I wouldn’t need to force my way aboard otherwise.”
“Who else would want to go to the underworld?”
He chuckled. “I plan to be heading back across the Styx soon enough. And with company—besides you.”
He wasn’t the first person to have thought of bringing the dead out of the underworld. Her mother had done it with her birth-father, after all. But Charon rarely yielded to petition or threat, and had only ever allowed a handful of living men aboard his boat, all before she was born. She hadn’t realized how vulnerable he’d become by adopting her. And this man dared to use her against her father. She bared her teeth. “Whoever you are, you won’t steal the dead so easily.”
“I am Aristodemos son of Kleitos, of Sparta, and I have nothing to lose.”
She didn’t recognize the name, as he seemed to expect. Oddly, that seemed to make him relax a little. “What should I call you, girl?”
There was no reason not to tell him, especially if it would keep him from calling her girl. “Myrrine.”
The exchange gave the conversation a strangely civil air, despite the blade at her neck. Many of the dead never bothered to ask for her name. She, on the other hand, was in the habit of always finding out the passengers’ life story. And perhaps if she knew his purpose, she could foil him.
“Who are you trying to bring out?” she asked.
She frowned. She’d expected a torrid tale of a romance cut too short, or perhaps a son who had been taken by the war. “Most soldiers are proud to die in battle. Are you sure they want to be returned to life?”
Evidently she’d touched a nerve. The knife kissed her skin and he said in a raw voice, “They deserve to live more than I do.”
Her father was sending her urgent glances, signaling for her to keep her mouth closed and avoid antagonizing this man. She subsided, but her curiosity was piqued more than ever. The rest of the ride passed in silence.
When Charon brought the boat to the far shore, he did so with special care not to rock it overmuch. He’d been less gentle for queens and heroes.
Aristodemos prodded her off the ferry, then paused to address Charon. “We’ll be back shortly. I’ll keep her safe as long as you raise no hand or outcry against me. If you do...it wouldn’t be far for her to go.”
Charon didn’t move, but she wouldn’t have stood willingly under his baleful glare.
Once they’d gone a short distance into the bleak gray plains of underworld, Aristodemos came to a halt. Pale shades wandered around them, careless of their presence.
“Here,” he said. “Open this.” With his free hand, he held out the amphora.
Myrrine took hold of the stopper and yanked it out so violently the contents splashed over her hand and onto the ground, rich and crimson. Even before it marked her skin, she knew what it was from its metallic smell: blood.
He sucked in his breath. “Careful with that! I sacrificed a kingly ram and a prime ewe for it.”
She flicked droplets off her fingertips, intrigued. “Why do you need sheep’s blood?”
“I consulted an oracle. The dead won’t speak with me unless they drink it first.”
The amount she’d spilled certainly seemed to be attracting attention. She was used to the dead, but once they crossed over the Styx they were usually an apathetic lot, or given over to despondence if they’d been sentenced to some punishment for their deeds in life. The shades clustering around them wore slack looks of mindless hunger. She suppressed a shiver.
Aristodemos kept pivoting to prevent the shades from reaching the amphora. He shouted, “Dienekes son of Tychon!”
The dead folk shuffled about, and a broken-nosed man stepped forward, something stirring in his gaze as his name was called again. He approached, and Aristodemos let him clutch the neck of the amphora, then tipped it so he could drink. The knife never wavered from Myrrine’s throat.
The shade swallowed convulsively until Aristodemos pulled the amphora away. The blood had made him more substantial: his face seemed more mobile now, capable of expression beyond hollow despair. And indeed, glad recognition warred with sorrow when he looked up. “Aristodemos! Your time came already?” Dienekes’s eyes narrowed as he took in the tableau. “What’s this?”
The blade at her throat pressed closer in warning before she could say anything. “It’s your time to leave that’s come,” Aristodemos said.
“Sparta has need of you. The Persians are still pressing in on us, worse than before.”
Dienekes scowled and folded his arms. “I’d help fight them if I could. But what can I do, here in the underworld?”
“Exactly,” Aristodemos said.
Dienekes’s face lightened as understanding dawned. “You sly bastard. How many of us can you take?”
“All of you. But help me with this girl first—she’s our way out of here. I have some rope strapped to my armor. Bind her hands together, then her ankles.”
She opened her mouth to object, but metal pricked her skin and she subsided, letting Dienekes tie her up. He was brisk about it but not unkind, making sure the rope wasn’t too constricting and leaving a short length of slack between her ankles so she could walk but not run. Aristodemos gagged her as well, foiling any attempt to attract the attention of Bion or even Hades.
Once he was satisfied she wouldn’t escape, Aristodemos turned to Dienekes and caught him in a kiss. “It’s good to see you again, more than you can know.” They stood there quietly for a moment with their foreheads touching, gazes locked. Then Aristodemos broke into a grin. “Now let’s gather our comrades.”
Dienekes cocked his head. “What of King Leonidas?”
A muscle twitched in Aristodemos’s jaw. “Let him rest quietly in Elysium.”
“Are you still angry with him? He sent you away because—”
“He sent me away, and I lived, and the rest of you all died.” She almost didn’t recognize Aristodemos like this: stripped of all bluster, grim-eyed, hollow-voiced. “The Persians advanced. It never should have happened that way. So I’m bringing you back. Are you going to help me?”
The worry-crease didn’t leave Dienekes’s brow, but he nodded. “I’ll help.”
But before they could turn to their task, a low growl interrupted them. They froze as a large, three-headed dog prowled closer to them: Cerberus, who kept the dead from escaping and the living from entering. Saliva dripped from his jaws.
Dienekes looked to Aristodemos. “Did you happen to plan for this?”
Cerberus advanced with fangs bared, then lifted one of his noses to sniff the air and whined. Another head turned toward Myrrine. He sat back on his haunches with his tail drooping. Her presence must be confusing him; Bion had trained him never to threaten her. The beast must think she was with these men, instead of their captive, and that her status extended to them.
Aristodemos took advantage of Cerberus’s hesitation to unstrap a bag and bring out a bloody hunk of meat, which he tossed to the dog. All three heads snapped and tore at it, snarling among themselves. “Fresh-slaughtered sheep,” he explained to Dienekes. “Dosed.”
With poison? Myrrine watched anxiously as Cerberus wolfed down the mutton. He rarely had a chance to eat fresh meat, and if he smelled anything unusual in this gift, he overlooked it in favor of satisfying his hunger. She wasn’t all that fond of the creature, but both Hades and Bion seemed to hold some affection for him.
After he licked his chops clean, he yawned widely and rested one of his heads upon his paws. The other heads lowered as well, eyes closing. One snored. Aristodemos must have used a sleeping draught. She gave the drowsing beast a dark look. The fearsome guardian of the underworld shouldn’t be so easily vanquished.
Without Cerberus to interfere, the two men sorted through the shades until they found fellow soldiers who’d died in the same battle, and offered them sips of the sheep’s blood. All of them agreed to Aristodemos’s plan. Myrrine expected it was too much for a soldier not to want more glory and a second chance at the enemy who’d felled him.
When they headed back to the Styx, Charon was still waiting there. As far as she could tell, he hadn’t moved at all, except for the sharp gaze that tracked every movement of Aristodemos’s.
Her captor had resumed his position behind her with his knife bared. Again they stepped onto the ferry, but this time they were accompanied by as many men as could fit. The remainder—hundreds of them, it seemed—were instructed to wait their turn. Charon’s mouth twisted, but he set his pole into the river and took them to the other side.
The soldiers sent up a glad cry as they stepped ashore. Aristodemos cursed them and clutched her to him tightly. “Don’t leap about like grasshoppers! Keep the boat steady!”
She was relieved to reach land without mishap. But she knew better than to expect that she would be released now. When Charon reached his hand out toward Aristodemos—for once demanding not a coin, but her—the blade pressed closer to her neck. “There are more,” Aristodemos said. “Go get them all.”
After a long moment, her father dropped his arm and took up his pole again, pushing the ferry back into the river current.
It took many trips to ferry the rest of the men across. Aristodemos counted them by marking neat rows of tallies in the ground with a stick. While he was busy greeting the men from the last boatload, she surreptitiously rubbed out one mark with her heel. Just one. Let Aristodemos drive himself mad wondering where the last man was—a small revenge for how he’d threatened her father, but all she could manage. But to her surprise, he came back to the patch of ground and finished drawing an even three hundred tallies. He rose with an exultant grin.
Her eyes narrowed. That meant three hundred and one men had been brought out of the underworld: three hundred of Aristodemos’s fellow soldiers and one imposter. Perhaps that would be enough to wreak havoc on Aristodemos’s purposes once he was gone from here.
His mission completed, he threw a purse at Charon’s feet. It clinked with the weight of many coins. “Take this for the cost of passage.”
Her father shook his head and pointed to Myrrine.
She presented her bound wrists to Aristodemos for him to remove. But instead of freeing her, he grabbed hold of her elbow and pulled her away from the river, toward the caverns that led toward the sunlit realms. Charon cried out hoarsely.
The sound of her father’s distress was too much for her. She pulled away from Aristodemos so abruptly that she won free of his grip, but with her full weight leaning away from him and her ankles still tied, she overbalanced and fell. The impact made her bite her lip, and when he pulled her up and saw the blood dotting her gag, he pulled it off with an oath.
She spat at him. “Lying scum! You said you’d return me to my father.”
“That’s what I’m doing. Are you all right?”
“Charon is my father!”
“No, Charon is the man who stole you from your real parents.”
She knew the story. “They abandoned me.” But a trickle of curiosity wended its way into her. What did this man know of her history?
He gave her a pitying look. “Is that what he told you? He forced them to leave you here.”
“And they were so very worried about it for the next twenty years, I can tell.”
He blew out his breath. “It isn’t easy to find a hero who’ll brave this place. I only agreed to rescue you in return for what they could tell me about the underworld.”
She glared at him. “Give me your knife and you can find out all about it.”
That only elicited an infuriating chuckle.
“Let me go,” she said. “You might have struck a deal, but what honor is there in abducting me?” In her ears she could still hear Charon calling out for her as Aristodemos dragged her away.
“Don’t you want to meet your parents? Learn what name they would have given you if only they’d been able to keep you?”
She fumed, but silently. Because she did want to know—the way she wanted to know everything, all the rich details of every person’s life. And it would be a chance to see the sunlit lands.
“But it’s a bit of a journey to their home. Before I take you to them...”
She sighed. “We’re going somewhere else first so you can fight the Persians?”
“Ah. Yes.” He scratched the side of his nose. “You’ll stay back when we fight. You won’t be in much danger.”
“Didn’t the Persians kill everyone in whatever battle these men died in?”
His expression darkened into a scowl. “Keep questioning me, girl, and the Persians will be the least of your worries.” He pulled her none too gently in the direction of the cave that would take them aboveground.
She couldn’t account for his sudden air of menace. For all that he’d threatened her earlier, she’d understood that was to coerce her father. This burst of anger felt more personal. She wasn’t sure she could trust such an unstable man to keep her safe, whatever his promises to her birth-parents.
She cast a glance over her shoulder, wishing she could tell her father where she was going. Charon would never leave the ferry. But when she caught a glimpse of him standing upon his boat in the distance, he looked surprisingly composed. She knew he cared about her—he wouldn’t have defied Hades’s mandate and allowed three hundred men to leave the realm of the dead otherwise—so how could he be so calm?
Maybe he thinks I can get myself out of this mess. That was a heartening thought. Many of the women who had crossed the Styx on his boat had been sheltered, delicate creatures. He hadn’t raised her to be like them. And there were tales of Amazons and clever wives who’d made their own way out of danger. For once she could lead her own adventure instead of merely listening to someone else’s.
But what would Bion think when he found her gone? They were supposed to leave the underworld together.
The soldiers set up a march, even raising their voices in song. Myrrine found herself envying their vigor. Once-dead they might be, but she’d spent most of her life in a boat, and their stamina outmatched hers. She trudged onward, losing track of time and distance in these dark tunnels.
The air changed, bearing the hint of tantalizingly unfamiliar smells—something fresh and almost sweet. Something living. The cavern was brighter here; she could make out the shadows and angles of the rough-hewn walls.
Dienekes began moving more sluggishly, then stopped altogether. “I can’t go any farther.”
Aristodemos turned, frowning. “We’re almost there.”
“The wind’s too strong.”
There was no wind; Myrrine’s hair wasn’t even stirred by the faint air currents. But the faint draft that had carried the new scents was a real obstacle for the dead. They were all leaning forward as though into a fierce gale, struggling to take their next step. They didn’t have enough substance to make their way into the land of the living.
Dienekes leaned against the cavern wall, exhausted by his efforts. “We may need to beg for Hades’s permission after all. We’re still but shades.”
Aristodemos said slowly, “If a ram’s blood brought you this far...” He folded his hand over the blade of his knife. When he opened it, blood ran bright from the gash in his palm. “Drink, my friend.”
Dienekes took hold of his wrist and bent to lap at the blood. Myrrine felt her gorge rising. This was too close to human sacrifice for her taste. But either the rationality gained earlier from the sheep’s blood or his regard for Aristodemos kept Dienekes from ravaging the flesh like a beast. After a moment, he straightened and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Even that simple motion looked crisper than all his movements before.
“How do you feel?” Aristodemos asked.
Dienekes grinned. “I could climb Mount Olympus.” He strode forward and rounded the turn out of sight. His voice came to them, exultant: “Sunlight, by the gods! Greetings, Helios!”
The other soldiers clustered around Aristodemos eagerly, taking turns sipping his blood. He had to reopen his wound several times and urged the men to take only the smallest amount they needed, but even so it took a long while for even half of them to drink. When the time came for yet another cut, Aristodemos fell back, covering his hand. Even in the dim light she could tell he was pale. “There are too many of you.”
His eye fell on Myrrine.
She whirled to run, but with her ankles hobbled he caught her easily. She fought, but only managed to rub her skin raw where the ropes bound her. He stretched out her arms while someone else held her still and nicked one of her veins. The only kindness he allowed her was to gather the blood into his waterskin so the soldiers wouldn’t need to press their mouths against her flesh. As she watched the blood flow from her, the world seemed to slide away, and she fell into darkness.