Read Percy Jackson and the Greek Heroes Page 2

  ‘I’m sure he would.’ Dictys tried not to sound nervous, but his brother was a notorious ladies’ man. He would probably welcome Danaë a little too warmly.

  Danaë frowned. ‘If your brother is the king, why are you only a fisherman? I mean, no offence. Fishermen are cool.’

  ‘I prefer not to spend too much time at the palace,’ Dictys said. ‘Family issues.’

  Danaë knew all about family issues. She was uneasy about seeking help from King Polydectes, but she didn’t see another option, unless she wanted to stay on the beach and make a hut out of her box.

  ‘Should I get cleaned up first?’ she asked Dictys.

  ‘No,’ said the fisherman. ‘With my brother, you should look as unattractive as possible. In fact, maybe rub some more sand on your face. Put some seaweed in your hair.’

  Dictys led Danaë and the baby to the main town on Seriphos. Looming above all the other buildings was the king’s palace – a mass of white marble columns and sandstone walls, with banners flying from the turrets and a bunch of thuggish-looking guards at the gate. Danaë started to wonder if living in a box on the beach wasn’t such a bad idea, but she followed her fisherman friend into the throne room.

  King Polydectes sat on a solid bronze throne that must have offered little in the way of lower-back support. Behind him, the walls were festooned with war trophies: weapons, shields, banners and a few stuffed heads of his enemies. You know, the usual decor to brighten up an audience chamber.

  ‘Well, well!’ said Polydectes. ‘What have you brought me, brother? It looks like you finally caught something worthwhile in your fishing nets!’

  ‘Um …’ Dictys tried to think of a way to say Please be nice to her and don’t kill me.

  ‘You are dismissed,’ the king said.

  The guards hustled the poor fisherman away.

  Polydectes leaned towards Danaë. His grin didn’t make him look any friendlier, since he had some nasty crooked teeth.

  He wasn’t fooled by Danaë’s ragged clothes, the sand on her face, the seaweed and tiny sardines in her hair or the bundle of rags she was holding. (Why was she holding that bundle? Was it her carry-on bag?) Polydectes could see how beautiful the girl was. Those eyes were gorgeous. That face – perfection! Give her a bath and some proper clothes, and she could pass for a princess.

  ‘Do not be afraid, my dear,’ he said. ‘How I can help you?’

  Danaë decided to play the victim, thinking the king would respond to that. She fell to her knees and wept. ‘My lord, I am Danaë, princess of Argos. My father, King Acrisius, cast me out. I beg you for protection!’

  Polydectes’s heart wasn’t exactly moved. But his mental gears definitely started turning. Argos – nice city. He’d heard about Acrisius, the old king with no sons. Oh, this was too good! If Polydectes married Danaë, he would become the ruler of both cities. He would finally have two throne rooms with enough wall space to display all those stuffed heads he kept in storage!

  ‘Princess Danaë, of course I grant you sanctuary!’ he said, loud enough for all his attendants to hear. ‘I swear upon the gods, you will be safe with me!’

  He rose from his throne and descended the steps of his dais. He meant to take Danaë in his arms to show what a kind, loving dude he was. As soon as he got within five feet of her, the princess’s bundle of rags started screaming.

  Polydectes jumped back. The screaming stopped.

  ‘What sorcery is this?’ Polydectes demanded. ‘You have a bundle of screaming rags?’

  ‘It’s a baby, my lord.’ Danaë tried not to smirk at the king’s horrified expression. ‘This is my son, Perseus, whose father is Zeus. I hope your promise of protection extends to my poor tiny child as well.’

  Polydectes developed a tic in his right eye. He hated babies – wrinkly, pudgy creatures that cried and pooped. He was sorry he hadn’t noticed the kid earlier, but he’d been distracted by Danaë’s beauty.

  He couldn’t take back his promise now. All of his attendants had heard him say it. Besides, if the baby was a child of Zeus, that complicated matters. You couldn’t chuck demigod babies in the bin without angering the gods – most of the time, anyway.

  ‘Of course,’ the king managed. ‘What a cute little … thing. He will have my protection, too. I’ll tell you what …’

  The king edged closer, but Perseus started screaming again. The kid had an evil-king radar.

  ‘Ha, ha,’ Polydectes said weakly. ‘The boy has a strong set of lungs. He can be raised in the Temple of Athena, far away at the other end of the city – I mean, conveniently located in the best part of the city. The priests there will take excellent care of him. In the meantime, you and I, dear princess, can become better acquainted.’

  Polydectes was used to getting his way. He figured it would take fifteen, maybe sixteen minutes tops to get Danaë to marry him.

  Instead, the next seventeen years were the most frustrating time in Polydectes’s life. Try as he might to become better acquainted with Danaë, the princess and her son thwarted Polydectes at every turn. The king gave Danaë her own suite of rooms at the palace. He gave her fancy clothes, beautiful jewellery, maidservants and an all-you-can-eat coupon book for the royal buffet. But Danaë wasn’t fooled. She knew she was just as much a prisoner here as she had been in that bronze cell. She wasn’t allowed to leave the palace. Aside from her servants, the only visitors she would have were her son and his nursemaids from the Temple of Athena.

  Danaë loved those visits from Perseus. While he was a baby, he would scream every time the king got close to Danaë. Since the king couldn’t stand the sound, he would leave quickly and go take some aspirin. When Perseus wasn’t around, Danaë found other ways to rebuff the king’s flirting. Whenever he came to her door, she would make retching noises and apologize for being sick. She would hide in the palace laundry room. She would weep uncontrollably while her maidservants looked on until the king felt embarrassed and ran away.

  For years the king tried to win her affection. For years she resisted.

  Their mutual stubbornness was kind of impressive, actually.

  Once Perseus got older, things got easier for Danaë and harder for Polydectes.

  After all, Perseus was a demigod. The dude had mad talent. By the time he was seven, he could wrestle a grown man to the floor. By the time he was ten, he could shoot an arrow across the length of the island and wield a sword better than any soldier in the king’s army. Growing up in the Temple of Athena, he learned about warfare and wisdom: how to pick your fights, how to honour the gods – all good stuff to know if you want to live through puberty.

  He was a good son, which meant he continued to visit his mom as often as possible. He didn’t scream any more when Polydectes came around, but if the king tried to flirt with Danaë, Perseus would stand nearby, glaring, his arms crossed and several deadly weapons hanging from his belt, until the king retreated.

  You’d think Polydectes would have given up, right? There were plenty of other women to bother. But you know how it is. Once you’re told you can’t have something, you want it even more. By the time Perseus turned seventeen, Polydectes was out of his mind with irritation. He wanted to marry Danaë before she was too old to have more kids! He wanted to see his own children become the kings of Argos and Seriphos. Which added up to one thing: Perseus had to go.

  But how to get rid of a demigod without directly murdering him?

  Especially since Perseus, at seventeen, was the strongest and best fighter on the island.

  What Polydectes needed was a good trap … a way to make Perseus walk right into his own destruction without any of the blame splashing back onto Polydectes.

  Over the years, the king had seen a lot of heroes gallivanting around: slaying monsters, rescuing villages and cute puppies, winning the hearts of princes and princesses and getting major endorsement deals. Polydectes had no use for such nonsense, but he’d noticed that most heroes had a fatal flaw – some weakness that (with any luck) woul
d get them killed.

  What was Perseus’s fatal flaw?

  The boy was a prince of Argos, a son of Zeus, yet he’d grown up as a castaway in a foreign kingdom, with no money and only his mother for family. This made him a little touchy about his reputation. He was anxious to prove himself. He would take on any challenge. If Polydectes could use that against him …

  The king began to smile. Oh, yes. He had just the challenge in mind.

  Later that week, Polydectes announced that he was collecting wedding presents for the princess of a neighbouring island. Her name was Hippodemeia. Her dad, King Oenomaus, was an old friend of Polydectes, but none of that was really important.

  It was just an excuse to collect presents.

  Polydectes gathered all the rich and famous of Seriphos for a party at the palace to see what kind of loot they would cough up. Everybody wanted to impress the king, so they competed with one another to give the coolest presents.

  One family contributed a silver vase studded with rubies. Another gifted a golden chariot and a team of pure-white horses. Another offered a thousand-drachma gift certificate for iTunes. Nothing but the best for the old what’s-her-name who was getting married to whoever!

  As the gifts piled up, Polydectes complimented everybody and made all the rich and famous people feel special (like they didn’t already). Finally he spotted Perseus over by the hors d’oeuvres table, hanging out with his mom and trying to go unnoticed.

  Perseus didn’t want to be at this stupid party. Watching a bunch of snooty nobles suck up to the king wasn’t his idea of fun. But he had a duty to look out for his mom in case Polydectes got flirty, so here he was, drinking lukewarm punch and eating mini-weenies on toothpicks.

  ‘Well, Perseus!’ the king called across the room. ‘What have you brought as a present for my ally’s daughter’s wedding? You are the mightiest warrior in Seriphos. Everyone says so! Surely you have brought the most impressive gift.’

  That was really low. Everyone knew Perseus was poor. The other guests snickered and turned up their noses, glad to see the young upstart put in his place. They didn’t like it when handsome, strong, talented demigods from out of town topped them at anything.

  Perseus’s face turned bright red.

  Next to him, Danaë whispered, ‘Don’t say anything, my son. He’s just trying to make you angry. It’s some sort of trap.’

  Perseus wouldn’t listen. He hated being made fun of. He was the son of Zeus, but the king and his nobles treated him like a worthless bum. He was tired of Polydectes and the way he kept Danaë prisoner in the palace.

  Perseus stepped to the middle of the room. The nobles parted around him. He called to the king, ‘I may not be the richest one here, but I keep my promises. What would you like, Polydectes? Name any wedding gift for what’s-her-name. Name it, and I will bring it.’

  The crowd tittered nervously. (Yes, I looked it up. Tittered is totally a real word.) Polydectes just smiled. He’d been waiting for this.

  ‘A fine promise,’ said the king. ‘But promises are easy. Would you swear a binding oath … say, on the River Styx?’

  (FYI: Don’t swear on the River Styx. It’s the most serious oath you can make. If you don’t keep your word, you’re basically inviting Hades, his Furies and all the daimons of the Underworld to drag you down to eternal punishment with no chance of parole.)

  Perseus glanced at his mother. Danaë shook her head. Perseus knew that making an oath to an evil guy like Polydectes was unwise. The priests who’d raised him at Athena’s temple would not approve. Then Perseus looked around at the crowd sneering and smirking at him.

  ‘I promise on the River Styx!’ he shouted. ‘What do you want, Polydectes?’

  The king reclined on his uncomfortable bronze throne. He gazed at the stuffed heads decorating his walls.

  ‘Bring me …’

  Cue the dramatic organ music.

  ‘… the head of Medusa.’

  Cue the gasping crowd.

  Even saying the name Medusa was considered bad luck. Hunting her down and cutting off her head? That wasn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy.

  Medusa was the freakiest monster known to the Greeks. Once she’d been a beautiful woman, but after she had a romantic get-together with Poseidon in Athena’s temple (possibly the same temple where Perseus was raised), Athena had turned the poor girl into a hideous creature.

  You think your morning face is bad? Medusa was so ugly that one glance at her would turn you to stone. No one had ever seen her and lived, but according to rumours she had gold bat wings, brass talons for fingers and hair made out of living poisonous snakes.

  She lived somewhere far to the east with her two sisters, who had also been transformed into bat-winged monsters – maybe because they had dared to stay with their sister. Together, the three of them were known as the Gorgons, which sounds like an awesome name for a backup band. Now appearing: Johnny Graecus and the Gorgons! Okay, maybe not.

  Many heroes had ventured off to find Medusa and kill her, because … well, I’m not sure why, actually. She wasn’t bothering anyone as far as I know. Maybe just because it was a hard quest. Or maybe there was a prize for killing the ugliest monster. Whatever the case, no hero who went after her had ever returned.

  For a moment, the throne room was absolutely still. The crowd looked horrified. Danaë looked horrified. Perseus was so horrified, he couldn’t feel his own toes.

  Polydectes smiled like Christmas had come early. ‘You did say “Name it and I’ll bring it”, correct? Well’ – the king spread his arms – ‘bring it.’

  The tension broke. The crowd howled with laughter. Looking at Perseus, a seventeen-year-old nobody, and imagining him cutting off the head of Medusa – it was just too ridiculous.

  Somebody yelled, ‘Bring me a Gorgon T-shirt while you’re at it!’

  ‘Bring me a snow cone!’ someone else shouted.

  Perseus fled in shame. His mom called after him, but he just kept running.

  On the throne, Polydectes basked in applause. He ordered party music and a round of lukewarm punch for everyone. He was in the mood to celebrate.

  At the very least, if Perseus chickened out, he’d be too embarrassed to ever come back. Maybe the gods would kill him for breaking his oath. And if the kid was actually stupid enough to find Medusa … well, Perseus would end up as a colossal demigod paperweight.

  The king’s problems were over!

  After fleeing the palace, Perseus ran to the cliffs overlooking the sea. He stood at the edge and tried not to cry. The night sky was covered in clouds, as if even Zeus was ashamed to look at him.

  ‘Dad,’ Perseus said, ‘I’ve never asked you for anything. I’ve never complained. I have always made the right sacrifices and tried to be a good son to my mom. Now I’ve messed up. I opened my big mouth and made an impossible promise. I’m not asking you to solve my problem for me, but please, I’d really appreciate some guidance. How do I get myself out of this?’

  At his shoulder, a voice said, ‘What a nice prayer.’

  Perseus jumped, barely avoiding a fall off the cliff.

  Standing next to him was a twentyish-looking guy with an impish smile, curly brown hair and a strange cap with a brim only in the front. The man’s clothes were odd, too – brown leggings, a close-fitting brown shirt and laced black shoes like a combination of boots and sandals. On the left breast of his shirt was sewn a pocket, and cleverly stitched above that were letters that didn’t look Greek: UPS.

  Perseus figured the guy must be a god, because no mortal would dress that dorky. ‘Are you … my father Zeus?’

  The newcomer chuckled. ‘Buddy, I’m not old enough to be your dad. Seriously, do I look a day over one thousand? I’m Hermes, the god of messengers and travellers! Zeus sent me to help you out.’

  ‘That was fast.’

  ‘I pride myself on quick service.’

  ‘What are those symbols on your shirt?’

  ‘Oh.’ Hermes l
ooked down. ‘What century is it? Sorry, I get confused sometimes.’ He snapped his fingers. His clothes changed to something more normal – a wide-brimmed hat like travellers wear to keep off the sun, a white tunic cinched at the waist and a wool robe across his shoulders. ‘Now, where was I? Right! Zeus heard your prayer and sent me with some cool magic items to aid you on your quest!’

  Hermes snapped his fingers again. He proudly held up a leather bag the size of a backpack.

  ‘It’s a sack,’ Perseus noted.

  ‘I know! After you cut off the head of Medusa, you can put it in here!’

  ‘Wow. Thanks.’

  ‘Also …’ Hermes reached into the sack and pulled out a simple bronze helmet: just a skullcap, like the king’s foot soldiers wore. ‘This little baby will turn you invisible.’

  ‘Seriously?’ Perseus took the cap and looked inside. ‘Why is it inscribed Made in Bangladesh?’

  ‘Oh, don’t mind that,’ Hermes said. ‘It’s an unauthorized reproduction of Hades’s helmet of darkness. But it works great. I promise.’

  Perseus put on his cheap Bangladeshi knock-off helmet. Suddenly he couldn’t see his own body. ‘That’s cool.’

  ‘Right? Okay, take off the helmet, ’cause I got something else for you. I had these made special.’

  From his leather sack of fabulous prizes, Hermes pulled a pair of sandals. Tiny dove wings sprouted from the heels. As the god dangled the shoes from their laces, they flapped around, straining for freedom, like birds on leashes.

  ‘I use a pair of these myself,’ Hermes said. ‘Put them on, and you can fly! Much faster than walking or swimming to Medusa and, since you’ll be invisible, you won’t have to log a flight plan or anything!’

  Perseus’s heart beat as fast as the dove wings. Ever since he was little, he’d wanted to fly. He tried on the sandals and instantly shot into the sky.

  ‘YEAH!’ he whooped with joy. ‘THIS IS AWESOME!’

  ‘Okay, kid!’ Hermes yelled at the tiny dot zipping in and out of the clouds. ‘You can come down now!’

  Perseus landed, and Hermes explained what would happen next. ‘First, you gotta find these three old ladies called the Grey Sisters.’