For this week, something completely different: An opening chapter of a long-neglected but very funny project of mine. After “Walking Dead”, the most (relatively) popular thing I have written is “Anio, Son of Poseidon”, my one venture into straight fantasy which started out as a salvage job of my 8th-grade English project. I took it rather more personally than necessary when the few reviews the book received on Amazon compared it unfavorably to the works of Rick Riordan, to the point of assuming that it was an imitation based on similarity in titles which I had no responsibility for. (I suppose the fact that much of my work IS in borderline-infringement territory makes me more sensitive when people jump to that conclusion without cause.) After a little while, I decided to be a bit more constructive and look at the first “Percy Jackson” book. I quickly and respectfully concluded that Mr. Riordan’s approach to mythology, particularly the adaptation of the myths to modern settings was not one I cared for. Still, it got me thinking about the possibilities of free historical adaptation, and it was probably inevitable that I thought of the massively over-researched Balkans background already in use for “Exotroopers”. The result was this…
The Trial of Hercules
Throngs of thousands lined the streets of Athens to greet Hercules, the greatest hero of Greece. But there were no cheers at the approach of his chariot, a Zastava Jugo 45, but only sad or curious or simply morbid mutterings. The hero had returned victoriously from a year in war, to face a tribunal for his deeds.
Another car preceded Hercules, a Zastava 750 “Fica”. This was the humble people’s car for a generation not quite past, and vehicle of choice for the wise, cunning and compassionate Theseus, King of Athens (a title no one talked of taking from him when he insisted that the city adopt a democratic government), the slayer of the Minotaur, and Hercules’ attorney. His car was first to halt before the great courthouse of Athens, and when the Jugo of Hercules halted behind him, he emerged. He was short and stout, his body subtly muscular, his head squarish and going to bald. He strode to the Jugo, and murmured as he opened the door: “Stay the course, friend.”
Then out, like rabbit from a too-small hat, came Hercules. He was reckoned as huge, and as strong, and as brave, and as graceful, and as wise, and as well-tempered, and as hirsute as a bear. It seemed impossible that he could have fit inside the car, still more impossible that he could come out again. But his poise was such that he seemed to pour through the door. There was an innately jovial quality to his face, but this day his expression was sad, so profoundly so that it almost doubled back into silliness.
When Hercules and his counsel took their seats, the trial began promptly. It opened with an address by the mad king of Eleutherae, who was reckoned madder than most kings, who stood and declared, “War is Hades, but this simply will not do!”
“Does the accused wish to address the court?” said the chief of the judges.
Hercules rose immediately, and said: “Honorable gentlemen… I know I have done a terrible thing. I will accept any punishment you impose.” He dropped back into his seat, which visibly sagged under his weight, buried his head in his hands and began to sob.
The prosecutor rose. “Does the prisoner then plead guilty, to all charges?”
After several nudges failed to draw a response from Hercules, Theseus rose and spoke: “My client neither confesses, nor denies, anything he may be accused of. If the honorable prosecutors say Hercules did this thing or that, we will accept his word.” The prosecutor’s brows furrowed in surprise, but his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “But Hercules cannot confess to any deed. For he has sworn to me, by the most solemn oaths, that before the things for which he is now being tries happened, something like a red cloud fell upon his mind, and he cannot remember anything that happened until it lifted.”
Hercules sobbed louder. An old woman jumped to her feet and shrieked half-intelligible curses until the guards removed her. The judge inquired with a raised eyebrow, “And Hercules will swear to this?”
Hercules lifted his head, and it seemed his eyes dried remarkably quickly as he rose to his feet. “I swear,” he said, raising his hand, “on Zeus, and Olympus, and the Styx, and my father’s tomb, and my own manhood… I remember nothing.” He sat down again and resumed sobbing, even more heavily than before, so that his heaving chest shook the table behind him.
“Is it not wisdom,” Theseus said, “that no man should be punished for a deed he has no knowledge of committing?”
“Wise counsel indeed, Theseus,” the judge said with a nod, though his eyebrow had yet to drop. After long moments of pondering, he said, “Very well. It is my office to conduct the affairs of the court, in hearing whether a man did a deed. But the state of a man’s mind is another matter. Unless the prosecution can speak to that, I must defer to the jury to deliberate at once.” The prosecutor scowled, and his assistant rose to protest, but the assistant was waved down, and no protest was made. The men of the jury shuffled back to their chamber.
It was well past noon before the jury returned. The judge read the verdict: “The jury finds that, as there is no question of what the great Hercules has done, but only the state of his mind when the deeds were done, the men of the jury are unfit to decide his guilt. For mortal men may judge each others’ deeds, whether they be good or evil, but only the gods can judge a man’s mind. The jury therefore finds that the defendant should be set free.”
The prosecutor’s assistant rose to protest, but the prosecutor waved him down. Theseus rose confidently from his seat, subtly smiling. But Hercules shot to his feet, throwing back his chair and slamming his hands down upon the table with such force that it cracked thrice over. “How can this be justice done?” the great Hercules roared. “If an evil deed has been done, then a penalty must be borne! I call in the names of all gods, let justice be done! Punish me, that I may bear it!”
There was a long silence, in which every man barely moved, but only stared at Hercules and the ravaged docket. Finally, the judge spoke: “Since the verdict has been protested, and since the verdict as delivered is not a final finding, I ask the jury to reconsider.”
So, the jury filed out again, and the sun was low in the sky when they returned. Hercules was still standing, his very hands still upon the cracked table. This time, the foreman addressed the court aloud: “We men of the jury affirm, on our honor and the names of the gods, that we will not and cannot consign a man to punishment for a crime we cannot judge. However, we cannot deny the great Hercules the right to be judged, and if need be face punishment. Therefore, since it is settled that the great Hercules’ guilt or innocence is a matter of his mind, which only the gods may see, we will render a further ruling: That the great Hercules should go to an oracle of the gods, and if, by the words of the gods who see the minds of men, he is found to have done evil, then the same oracle shall prescribe his penalty.”
Theseus once again rose, his smile now a broad grin. “We have done it! The prosecutors cannot defy the jury by trying you again. Now, we must only speak to an oracle, any oracle, and if the oracle does not find you innocent, then at worst, you will be asked to render a sizable offering at one of the temples.”
“No,” Hercules said. “I know in my soul, that I have done a great evil, that only my freedom or my blood can pay for. None who truly speaks the words of the gods could find otherwise.” Suddenly, his face broke out in an entirely alarming grin. “I know! The Sybil of Delphi, the very Oracle of Apollo, is in town! She can deliver a judgment, and then I will be free to be punished!”
David N. Brown