I like cows. Cows are generally easy going, undemanding in their dietary and physical requirements, and they have nice eyes. OK, they aren’t the brightest animals, but they don’t whine or pick fights or steal things like my relatives. You know, relatives are a pain, aren’t they? I mean, you think you’ve got problems, you should try walking a mile in my sandals, is all I’m saying.
Take Dad, for example. Temper like a boxful of ferrets that haven’t been fed for a week, and can’t keep his hands off anything young and pretty in skirts. No wonder my stepmother is such a sour bitch; having all his byblows, including me and Missy, living in the house as a constant reminder can’t be much fun, to be fair. Missy, she’s my twin sister. Mind you, living in the house is a bit of an exaggeration in her case, she’s such a tomboy she’s more likely to be off hunting or fishing or up to something with that pack of butch girls she hangs around with. And it’s not as if we’re a small family – though luckily, Dad doesn’t get on with his Dad at all, some sort of huge family blow-up and they haven’t spoken for years, and my uncles, Dad’s brothers, live a long way away, so we don’t see them much, either.
No, getting away from the family is always a good thing. Missy has the right idea, but totally the wrong solution. I mean, camping in nasty damp woods, where your good clothes get all creased and dirty and torn, and there’s nowhere with proper plumbing and comfortable beds – no way. Even if some of those huntsmen are cute. No, I’d rather drive down to the ranch and lean over the fence and talk to the cows – even help milking them, if I’m in the mood, there’s something awfully primal and satisfying about milking.
So when I got down there one Wednesday to discover that some thieving bastard had rustled half of our stock, including Io Sunnymead Haven, our prize milker, you can understand that I was not best pleased. I like to think that I have by far the sunniest nature of anyone in the family, but I did overhear one of the farm workers less cautious or more trusting than the others remarking in an undertone: ‘un don’t ‘alf take after un’s Dad when un’s in a mood, don’t un?’ which I have to admit I secretly found rather thrilling.
Not thrilling enough, however, to stop me storming back up the hill home to demand of Dad that he Do Something About It.
“I told you we needed better security on the farm!” I said, rather louder than I had perhaps intended. “Now look what’s happened.”
He shot me a look from under his brows that combined grumpiness and shiftiness in equal measure.
“Don’t shout at me, boy, you aren’t too big for a good hiding, you know,” he growled. The trouble is, he means it, as I’ve found to my cost before. You don’t try conclusions with Dad. Not more than once, anyway.
“Sorry.” I hastily apologised. “But we can’t let people think that they can get away with stealing our cows.”
“Oh, our cows are they now? I thought you told me, when I wanted to sell some of them, that I’d given them to you as a birthday present so they were yours.”
“Don’t Daaaad me, young man. You want something done about it, you get off your lazy arse and do it. I give you authority to sort it out, if you can, there, how do you like that?”
Well, actually, I liked it just fine, provided he meant it. Dad is sort of the Head Honcho round these parts, so if I told people to jump in his name, they’d only pause to ask how high. And I wanted those thieving cattle-rustling sons of bitches who’d taken my cows – my cows! – strung up by their balls. Oh yes.
Only of course stringing them up meant catching them first, and there wasn’t much in the way of clues to go on. The men swore blind that no-one had seen anything last night, and I had no reason to suppose they were lying – most of them had been with us for years, and anyway they knew that getting on the wrong side of the Family was not sensible, not in these parts, so I couldn’t see it being an inside job.
So I drove around a bit looking for clues. My eyesight’s pretty sharp, and I thought I’d be able to spot it if there was anything to be seen. The odd thing was that although I could find a few cow tracks they all seemed to be going into the field, not out of it, and there was no sign of wheel ruts, or even footprints in the soft bits. It puzzled me, and I paused in the shade of a pine tree to think about it.
As I was thinking – and also thinking that it would have been sensible to bring a packed lunch – an old boy in a neighbouring vineyard waved at me.
“Afternoon, young master,” he said. “Would ee care for a drop of wine?” The local farmers are a decent lot, I have to say. There’s usually something to be had if you turn up at someone’s place, even unannounced. They take the duty of hospitality fairly seriously around here.
“That’s very decent of you, don’t mind if I do,” I said, though I knew that if Dad ever found out I’d been drinking and driving you’d hear the commotion from here to the sea. He took out the wine and a beaker that I fervently hoped had been washed since it was last used, and poured me a drop.
Not the finest vintage I’ve ever swallowed, but it cut the dust.
“Thank you,” I said. “Nice day.”
“Well, young master, I suppose it don’t seem bad to ee, fine young feller like ee takin the sun, but I do think that this hot weather have come too soon. All me grapes’ll be raisins afore I has the chance to harvest ‘em.” Typical bloody farmer, never satisfied. “Still, strange weather for strange times, and these be strange times all right.”
“Tell me about it,” I agreed mournfully, taking another sip of the wine. It improved with acquaintance. Marginally. “I’ve never known the like of what’s just happened to me. Bloody strange.”
His face creased up like a sheet of parchment with amusement. “Why, young master, I doubts ee’ve seen anything half so strange as what I did just see last night.”
“Last night? It wasn’t anything to do with cows, was it?”
“Cows! I should say. Strangest thing I ever did see, young master.”
“What? Tell me! What was strange?”
“Why, just after moonrise I’d gone out to piss on the vines – makes ‘em yield better ee know,” – I hurriedly put down my cup, and tried hard not to think about it – “and what should I see but a herd of cows walking backwards. Backwards, what do ee think about that? Never in all my born days did I see the like. And a young streak of a lad driving them, naked as the day un was born, with his feet all bound up with rushes, and a birch broom in un’s hand that un swept the road with. Now don’t that beat all, for strangeness, then?”
Yes, yes, yes! Of course, that was how he’d done it. I could have kissed the old devil, but I settled for shaking his hand.
“Thank you. You’ve just told me exactly what I needed to know.”
“Pleasure, I’m sure.” He looked at me shrewdly. “Your cows, was they?”
“Ah – yes. Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Ah. Thought they might be.”
Once I knew what I was looking for, of course, it wasn’t so hard to find the traces. I mean, making them walk backwards was clever (and how had he done that?) but the traces were still there, just apparently going in the wrong direction. As I followed I realised that they had been driven over towards Cyllene. That rang a vague bell in my mind, but I couldn’t think what, and to be honest I was thinking more of what I was going to do to the thief once I got my hands on him. Something lingering, with vultures, maybe. Or ants. Ants would be good.
Eventually something told me I must be coming up on my prey. The tracks had got more obvious, as if whoever it was had got a bit careless, and let the cows mill around a bit, and there were well-tilled fields along the stream that came down from the mountain. Someone’s spread, not big, but well kept.
I decided that marching in along the road wasn’t the smartest policy. I was glad that Dad hadn’t insisted on me bringing one of my older brothers, Ari for example. Ari would have just charged in and started smashing the place up. This needed finesse, finesse and eyes sharp enough to spot that freshly-cut brush had been stacked up at one point on the hillside, to try to give the impression that it was growing there. It might even have worked, if the heat of the sun hadn’t made the leaves on it start to wilt.
I was willing to bet that there was a cave behind there. And I was willing to bet that my cows were inside it.
I parked a good distance away, and sneaked up the hill on foot. Sure enough, when I got there, I could hear soft breathing and the rumble of bovine stomachs, and the occasional mild complaint. I slipped through, replacing the cut boughs behind me.
“Hello girls,” I said quietly. I’d like to say that they looked pleased to see me, but they only turned those huge brown eyes on me in a speculative fashion to see if I’d brought them anything nice to eat. They were tethered, but it was cool, there was light from a couple of holes in the roof, high up, and they had plenty of hay and water, so they seemed reasonably happy for the moment.
And then I heard – oh yes, there are gods – the sound of footsteps coming up the path, and someone whistling, jauntily.
Well, what was I to do? It so happened that I had some cord about my person, always do, and I suppose there’s no doubt I’m my dad’s son, because the only thing I thought was: yes! you’re mine, you thieving little swine.
And he was, too, with surprisingly little effort. I slipped to one side of the entry, out of direct sight before he pulled the brush away and slipped from the bright sunlight into the dimness of the cave. While his eyes were still adjusting to the dimness I grabbed him, rabbit punched him, and had him down on the floor in the dirt (honestly, it was an accident that his face got rubbed in that cowpat, really it was), with his hands tied behind his back, before you could say knife.
I must say I don’t know what they’re teaching young people these days. Some of the expressions he used were new even to me.
I kicked him, not particularly hard, and when this provoked a further stream of abuse I leaned down, and said, quite conversationally:
“Some people might think that a person in your position – a thief who has been caught red-handed by the person he has just robbed blind, a thief who is tied up and helpless on the floor at the feet of that same justly aggrieved person – some people might think, as I say, that that thieving little toe-rag would do well to watch his mouth and start thinking of ways to apologise.”
With some difficulty he rolled over to look at me.
Well. I have to admit that under other circumstances – well, he was really quite pretty. Shapely face, cheekbones you could shave with and huge grey long-lashed eyes above them, and a mass of loose blond curls. Perfect skin, too, the sort you wanted to run your fingers, and maybe your lips, over. Under other circumstances. I mean, I noticed all right, I’m not blind, but it didn’t make me want to go easy on him. Quite the contrary if anything.
He blinked a couple of times, and his jaw may have dropped slightly. Well, I do tend to have that effect on people. I mean, when I say that I’m by far the best looking one at home it sounds vain, but really it isn’t. It’s just something I have to live with.
“What do you mean, thief?” he said, managing to sound both reasonable and rather put out. “I was just. . .”
“I was – er – just going for a walk in the country, I noticed this cave, and I thought I heard someone cry out for help. Naturally I rushed up to see if someone needed assistance, and then I was jumped on! Brutally beaten up, tied, and falsely imprisoned. I warn you, you’ll be hearing from my lawyers.”
“Hah! You don’t even have any lawyers, you thieving guttersnipe. And no-one would believe that ridiculous story if you did. You stole my cows, drove them backwards so no-one could follow their tracks, and penned them here. I caught you just as you came to gloat over your prey.”
The big grey eyes widened in a semblance of innocence I didn’t find in the least convincing – done it too many times myself. “Ooh, that isn’t true. Besides, you call my story ridiculous? How am I supposed to have made cows walk backwards?”
I paused. Actually, now I thought about it. . . “Don’t try to wiggle out of it. You did do it, and there’s a witness.”
His face fell. He hadn’t known he’d been seen. Then he rallied.
“I don’t believe you. You’re trying to make me admit something I didn’t do. Anyway, how do I know you didn’t bribe – or threaten – this witness into blaming me?”
My own jaw dropped at this brazen impudence.
“You little. . .”
And before I quite knew how it had come about he was bare-arsed and over my knee.
“Oh, I am so going to enjoy this,” I said, running an appreciative hand over the pert, high little cheeks. I raised my hand high above my head and brought it down with a fair bit of welly. SMACK!
Well, you’d think he’d never been spanked before the way he carried on. (Afterwards, I discovered that he hadn’t. High time then, if you ask me.) Yelling, crying, calling me everything under the sun, begging, wriggling like an eel. But you see, I’ve been there, where he was. More times than I care to remember. And I found I liked being on this end of it much better.
I remembered all those little tricks that Dad has: varying the intensity, sometimes concentrating on one spot so that the sting really builds up, sometimes allowing each shift and wriggle simply to present a fresh canvas. Up and down, top and sides and bottom – I even pulled his cheeks apart to deliver a few slaps to their inner surfaces, something I always found both painful and humiliating when it happened to me and which he obviously felt similarly about judging by his reaction.
Oh yes, this was great, this visiting of well deserved punishment on the offender. I was having the time of my life until someone came bursting through the entrance of the cave.
“Do you mind,” I said crossly, “you’re blocking my light.” It was a woman, not quite old enough to be my mother, quite pretty if you like that type. And she was holding. . .
“Don’t shoot,” I said hastily. Those sort of complications we really didn’t need.
“Mum, mum, he’s killing me!” snivelled the brat across my knee.
“Let go of my son, you bastard, before I shoot you dead,” she hissed.
I thought about it for a millisecond. “He stole my cows,” I ventured at last, quite calmly I thought, given the circumstances.
“Oh, you didn’t did you?” she said in the general direction of the bright red arse bouncing on my lap.
“No mum, honest,” said the lying little bastard. “I just found them and this guy attacked me.”
Her expression hardened again. “You heard him. He didn’t take your precious cows – if they are yours. And this is our land. Let him up, now, before I fill you full of holes.”
I had had just about enough of all this. Besides, there was no way she was going to shoot me while I had the boy – she might have hit him, instead. Everyone knows women can’t shoot straight, something to do with hormones. Except Missy. She’s not bad, I suppose. “Listen, I don’t know who you think you are. . .”
“Name’s Maia,” she snapped. Pretty name, actually. “And you are?”
“They call me. . .” I paused, “Archie.”
“Well, Archie, I’m not going to tell you again. You get the hell off my boy and off my land. Now!”
“I don’t think you have any idea who you’re dealing with here. Do you know who this brat has been stealing from? Who these cows belong to?”
“He says he didn’t steal them!” She took aim, and I lifted the boy bodily and held him in front of me as a shield. “Going to shoot your son, are you? Be my guest. It’ll save us hanging him later.”
I saw anger and fear warring in her face, but the white around her knuckles faded a bit as her grip relaxed, which was privately a relief. Getting shot right now would be – inconvenient, to say the least. And all my relatives would laugh, the heartless bastards.
“Listen, don’t you dare hurt him! His father will kill you if you do.”
“Yeah? Well my father might have something to say about that. Especially as these are his cows.” I was aware as I said it that it smacked a bit of the playground, ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ sort of thing, but it was too late to take back.
She sneered. “I really don’t think there’s any comparison,” she said. “His father’s the King.”
Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Well, ok, not literally. But my amazement must have shown on my face because the sneer became a sort of lopsided grin, and she added:
“So you see, Archie, you’re in way over your head here. Just let the boy go, and get out of here, and we’ll say no more about it.”
“Well, before I do that,” I said, “there’s one little thing you need to know. He’s my father too, and these are his cows that my little brother has stolen.”
“Oh shit,” she said, in a tone of total defeat. As she lowered the bow she had been pointing at me, the boy, who had been lying quiet in my grasp, suddenly tore free, and spun to face me, whilst rubbing furiously at his arse.
“You pig!” he spat at me, running his hands over his now crimson backside, and trying vainly to twist his head to see how bad the damage was. “I’ll get you for this.”
“Hermes, shut up,” said his mother. “How could you be so stupid as to steal your father’s cows? I’ve told you what sort of temper he has. Oh, this has all gone totally wrong, I planned to choose a suitable moment to introduce you, and now you’ve ruined it all.”
“They aren’t my father’s cows,” said the boy sulkily. “The herdsmen said that they were his.” He jabbed a finger in my direction. “And he isn’t Archie, either, he’s Pol, the lying bastard.”
“Pol? You’re Apollo?”
“Apollo Archigetes, at your service. Also Smintheus, Lukeion, and various other titles. So, stealing my cows is all right, is it? I think you need a few more lessons over my knee about the sanctity of private property.”
A look of alarm shot across his face and he dodged behind his mother.
“Mum, don’t let him hurt me! I’ll never sit down again as it is.”
“Hush,” she said, absently. “Apollo – what would it take to sort this out? Quietly, just between us?”
“I – I’m not sure we can. Dad knows about the cows.”
“You could get round him, though, couldn’t you? I mean, if the herd is yours, and you’ve got it back, then there’s no harm done.”
“I still had to go chasing over half the countryside for them,” I said.
“Look, come back to the ranch with us, I’ll make a fry-up – you must be hungry after all that chasing – and we’ll see if we can’t sort something out, hmm?” All very coaxing, very sweet – she did have a nice smile, I could see why Dad might have liked her.
“Well. . .” I didn’t intend to weaken, but it was hard not to, especially when she added “I could make doughnuts, boys always like fresh doughnuts. And honey from our hives.”
Unexpectedly, Hermes chipped in.
“Look, it was just a joke, OK? I never intended to keep them.”
“And is your bum laughing now?”
He grimaced, stuck his tongue out, and then, unexpectedly, grinned at me. It was like the sun coming out.
“You’ve got bloody hard hands,” he said ruefully.
Well, OK, I suppose I fell for the charm. He is charming, my little brother, can charm the birds out of the trees and the cash right out of your pockets. I found myself unwillingly grinning back.
“Hey, just think yourself lucky it wasn’t Dad. Ever been spanked with a thunderbolt? Those things sting. I literally couldn’t sit down for a week when he used one on me.”
“Ouch. Look, I tell you what. I’ll give you my guitar.”
“It’s a Fender. I invented it. You’re musical, everyone says you’re the talented one in that family. You’ll like it.”
He was right, I did. And I liked the doughnuts too. And that night, when I got back to Olympus, Dad raised an eyebrow at me.
“Find your cows?” he asked, all casual.
“Yes,” I said. “Oh, and a new relative. He’s coming to visit tomorrow.”
I think that flicker in his eyes was amusement. It certainly wasn’t amusement that made Hera spill her soup.
My stepmother turned a gaze on me that would have frozen Tartarus over. “Guests? Where are we going to put him?”
“It’s all right, Hera, he’s a friend of mine. He’ll stay in my apartments.”
She subsided, muttering evilly.
“A friend,” said Dad, evenly. “That’s nice.”
“Yes,” I said. “We got off on the wrong foot – well, wrong hooves, really – but it’s all sorted now. He’s going to teach me to play the guitar. We might even start a band.”
“Hmph. You did good, lad,” said my father.
You can live for ever on a compliment like that. Well, for a week, anyway.
Afterword. You're confused? Go read the Homeric Hymns, specifically the one to Hermes. What do you mean, you don't understand Mycenaean Greek? You'll be telling me you can't read Linear B next. Oh here, try this then.
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© , 2006