She felt him long before she saw him. He had to be godborn. Miles away, his presence made the hair on her arms stand on end. As the distance closed, she felt the familiar vibration in her skull, the tingle at the ends of her fingers and toes. Not so full of the blistering essence of creation to be a god, he was one of their progenies—as was she, just not of the Olympians who now ruled over Greece. No, her parents were cast of an older, more primitive mold now forgotten among all save the gods and the most learned humans. Mortal, she still had enough divinity flowing in her veins to recognize another godborn before she saw them, and to know she wanted nothing to do with them.
Pain. All the gods ever wrought was pain. A world of paradise for them to share and they couldn’t—or wouldn’t. They killed and maimed each other. They stole one another’s loves and lovers. And when that wasn’t enough, they created humans who mimicked every last of the worst traits the gods possessed. Almost as if those were more natural to them than happiness. They warred and hated more easily than they experienced joy or gave of themselves to support each other. She had finished with gods and men long ago, happier to keep to herself and live among the creatures of the world who survived without malice.
This godborn was close now. And he was definitely a man. Something about how men, particularly the godborn, carried themselves announced their sex, their maleness. She didn’t need eyes to hear his bovine breathing or the crunch of stones beneath his sandals. His sweat stink carried far on the wind, and she could feel his eyes on her, a wolf wondering if he could safely approach his prey, suspecting a trap or companions.
Of course, she had laid a trap. How could she not? The man had come hunting her, intending to murder her, mutilate her by chopping her head from her shoulders. She knew his reasons, and none of them mattered. Not to her. What mattered was he, like so many other men, had chosen to demonstrate his bravery, his ingenuity, his cunning by destroying her.
Now she waited in a clearing not far from the road that led inland from the sea. Travelers used it as a campsite. She had killed and dressed two rabbits and set them to cooking on two wooden forks over a fire. The orange flames kissed them now and then, and the scent of the cooking food made her belly rumble. Her bow and quiver leaned against a tree well out of reach. The scene could not have been more welcoming—a woman, hooded though she was, alone, unarmed, cooking food.
Yet he hesitated. And well he should.
She knew the tricks he carried: Hades’ helm of invisibility, an adamantine harpe from Zeus, a blessed sack from the Hesperides. Her lip curled into a sneer at the thought of them: No sisters to her, they. All vacant stares and wicked smiles watching over their orchard of golden apples. They said nothing about the peril walking the world, hunting her. The Gray Sisters had warned her. They were a sad testament to the greatness of creation and its unforgiving whim. Born broken and feeble, old before they had been weened, the three sisters shared but a single eye between them to see through. The tale that they only had one tooth to use to eat with was a disgusting lie. Still, something at the most basic of levels had gone wrong and rather than magnificent, they were malformed. However, what they saw with their eye, not even the Olympians could see: the future, the past, and the present as it unfolded. Anywhere in all the world.
And this Greek, this man who stood watching her now, called Perseus, he had used their blindness and infirmity against them. He stole their eye and made them reveal where she hid herself.
When the missive came in the form of a single dove among a murder of crows, she felt sorrow for their burden and that her secret had caused them pain. She also felt anger toward Perseus, a man she did not know, come to murder her for no wrong at all. For no more than the quest, because another man had commanded it. She spoke long with the dove and sent it back with many thanks and a message of regret. She promised her elder sisters she would do her best to repay her debt.
If he were a wise Greek, Perseus would don the helmet where he stood and come on without more ado. But he was clever; and wisdom and cunning rarely share the same vessel. Or maybe her ruse worked as intended: a penitent leper in the wilds, suffering a slow and lonely death. What could be safer for the son of a god?
She smiled and hummed to herself as she turned the rabbits over the fire. Here he came, now, cautious but not because he feared battle. She would have felt that, smelled the excitement, the fear on the air. He approached carefully because he did not wish to spook her poor feminine heart. She sat again, playing up the pain in her joints, and waited.
Not too long, though. First, she heard him whistling softly, to give away his presence, as if he had just happened to come along the road. Thoughtful. Then he appeared around the bend in the road just between two straight-armed poplars. He raised his hand in greeting, a smile on his broad, bronze face.
“Do you mind if I come share your fire?” he asked.
“No, so long as you don’t mind sharing a fire with an old leper,” she answered and held out her bandaged hands.
Perseus paused. His smile faltered for a moment, but he recovered quickly.
“I have no fear of that affliction,” he said, standing on the far side of the fire. “But I do pity the diseased.”
“And grateful we are for your pity,” she said, not bothering to hide the disagreeable note in her voice. “What brings you to this desolate island so far from civilized lands?”
Not much more than a boy, this Perseus. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen; he clearly considered himself a man. He was tall, for a Greek, and his wide chest and thick limbs spoke to his strength. He was pretty, with long glistening ringlets the color of burnished oak. A harpe hung at his side, the blade black with a dusting of silver like stars in a night sky. Across his back he wore a pack stuffed full of whatever he might need; his ornate gold helmet was tied to its side. On his arm he bore a bright bronze shield that shone with a smooth reflection that the hammer of no human could attain. For all he looked the hardened hero, he was not one. Not yet.
Perseus sighed and set down his pack.
“I have traveled long,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean you’ve traveled far,” she replied. He seemed not to have heard her.
“I am from Serifos, an island far to the east in the Aegean Sea. I’ve had many adventures coming here. Seen many wonders that may be hard for you to believe.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked. “Should I take you for a liar?”
“I am no liar,” Perseus shot back. The barb hurt, the insult evident in his crinkled brow and narrowed eyes. “It’s just that your life here,” and he gestured at the clearing with offhand disdain, “your experience is so limited that it can’t compare to what I’ve seen.”
She groaned as she stood and tottered toward the fire, resisting the urge to leap forward and slap his mouth. She poked at the rabbits. “Oh, my boy, they’re cooked. Would you like one?”
The young Greek’s glance bounced between her and the rabbits.
“You said you weren’t afraid of leprosy,” she goaded.
“I’m not,” Perseus sniffed. “I’m not sure I want rabbit.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, taking one and staking the other fork in the ground near the fire’s edge. “If you want it, there it is.”
She tore into her rabbit, all the while keeping her eyes on Perseus. Through a full mouth, she asked, “What’s your name, and what brings you so far from—where’d you say?”
“I am from Serifos and I am Perseus, the son of Zeus.” He raised his chin proudly and gazed off into the woods.
“Son of Zeus! Very impressive. Who was your mother?” His eyes narrowed again as he faced her, the declaration not having its intended effect. “Have you met any of your siblings?”
“Watch your mouth, woman,” Perseus said, biting the last word with particular force.
“No need for you to get angry,” she said with milky softness, a smile in her voice that did not appear on her face or in her eyes—though he wouldn’t have known from the deep hood.
“I’m not angry,” Perseus claimed in a bit of a pout. He caught himself midsulk and his smile and easy demeanor returned, by stages. His stomach growled loud enough for the entire island to hear. He winced at the sound and took the fork with the second rabbit. Tearing off a leg, he bit into the meat, cautiously at first, and then with enthusiasm.
“This is good,” he said around a mouthful.
“Well, Perseus from Serifos, what does a son of Zeus travel all the way here to find? Is there a girl?”
Perseus wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving a greasy smear on his cheek. He swallowed hard and pulled a waterskin from inside his pack. After taking a long pull, he said, “Not a girl. A monster.”
“Monster?” She went still, watching him from the depths of her hood. Her hair twitched for the first time since seeing him, and she heard a small hiss somewhere behind her head. She willed the noise to stop, and it did. Perseus, engrossed with picking clean the rabbit carcass, didn’t seem to notice.
“Mmhmm,” he responded, sucking a chunk of dark thigh flesh between his lips. “It’s called Medusa. Ever heard of it?”
The casual ask, her name on his lips, they made her dizzy.
She coughed to clear her head. “There is hardly a person alive who hasn’t heard of the fearsome Medusa,” she said, her voice flat. “They say her face is terrible to look upon and can turn to stone any who see it.”
“And she has a serpent body and hair of writhing vipers.” Perseus looked up at her for the first time since beginning his meal. He flicked a legbone into the bushes. “Do you know where she lairs on this island?”
“Believe me, if a creature such as that lived on this island, I think I would have heard of it.” She folded her hands inside her sleeves. “Aside from the leper colony—and we are viewed as the great monsters here—there’s the port, from which you came, and the town about a day’s journey along this road. Villages here and there, but nothing more as far as I know.”
“She must be here,” Perseus insisted, more to himself, annoyance plain in his voice. “Have you seen statues around the island? Statues so real you could mistake them for the living?”
She nodded. “I admit to seeing those, but the locals say they have been there since before people came to live on this island, left by a long-dead priest of Hephaestus who came here to perfect his art.” She stood and added another couple of branches to the fire. “Do you mind if I see your shield?”
Perseus hesitated, his appraising gaze playing over her from head to foot.
“I don’t think it could do any harm,” he said. “It’s remarkably light.” He rolled to his feet and hefted the shield. “Though you probably don’t know anything about weapons and armor. Why would you?” He laughed and held the shield out to her.
“Yes, why would I?” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. She took the shield in both her bandaged hands and felt a pang of anger. As she suspected, it was god-wrought. “Magnificent,” she mewed, allowing enough awe in her voice to mollify his appetite for flattery. “Where did you get such a fine device?”
“It’s a shield.”
“Yes. Of course. Such a fine shield.”
“The goddess Athena gave it to me,” he crowed and strutted two steps with his fists on his hips, a cock with the finest feathers and the biggest spurs.
She ground her teeth. But her eyes caught a fine inscription running along the shield’s edge. “What’s this?” she asked as she read the message: Spare Perseus if you can. He does everything for his mother.
“What?” Perseus leaned close to the shield. “Oh, the writing. I don’t know. It’s in a language I can’t read. Probably a protection in the tongue of the Olympians inscribed by Hephaestus himself.”
“Not exactly,” she quipped.
“I meant it’s not exactly what I had expected to hear from the son of Zeus. I’d have thought your father would have taught you his language.”
Perseus’ expression darkened, red coloring his cheeks. “I didn’t live on Olympus,” he growled and snatched the shield from her hands.
Unbidden, a pang of empathy pounded in her chest. She well knew the cruelty of the gods, particularly the males. Poseidon had attacked her, forced himself upon her, into her, and what could she do against his power? She, a mortal born of cosmic ardor, not quite human, not quite deific. Athena saw the destruction Poseidon’s cruel selfishness left in its wake. Although the goddess couldn’t give her what she wanted—Poseidon’s death—the goddess did bless her with gifts, though many did not see them as such.
“Why do you hunt Medusa?” she asked. “Has she wronged you?”
He sneered, still smarting from earlier. “If the beast had wronged me, I would have sought retribution on the spot.”
“There are many ways to wrong someone,” she replied, her voice gentle. “Not all must be a personal affront. Some wrongs are quite unintended.”
She did not have it in her to forgive Poseidon’s wrong. And she didn’t want to. She could still feel his hard, barnacled hand bruising her arms, the stench of his seaweed beard and dank fish breath filling her nose. The weight of his cold leviathan body immobilizing her. No matter her threats, her bites, her strikes against his face and back, the gouges her nails left deep as knife strokes, he only became more aroused, more forceful, and increased her pain has he pushed harder and harder, suffocating her. The memory never faded—not fully. How could it? The shame he visited on her had come to define her.
For many years, she thought hard on how best to exact retribution. She had considered hunting his children and turning each to stone. What had they done to her? They didn’t deserve death for their father’s depredation.
“You’ve gone quiet,” Perseus blurted, breaking her reverie.
“Remembering,” she said and rubbed her arms at the sudden chill breeze. “Hades must be about.” She picked up a few more branches and placed them on the fire.
He tilted his head, his expression curious.
“Can I see your face?” The words could not have sounded more innocent had they come from a boy half his age. Still, they startled her. Could it be this easy?
“You don’t want to see my hideous face,” she said and moved away from him. “Besides, it is rude to ask such a thing from one like me, not to mention unkind. I would have expected your mother to have taught you better.”
“If I offended you, that was not my intention,” Perseus said. “And yes, my mother did teach me manners.”
“But nary a word for the unkindness,” she said over her shoulder.
“What? I didn’t catch the last.”
She heaved a sigh and unrolled her blanket and small pillow on the ground near her bow and quiver of long arrows. The fletching on all save two was yellow. The red feathers marked those whose tips had been laced with a paralytic. She rarely used them and had never needed more than two.
“The sun is getting low, and I will be on my way early,” she said, nesting down in her blanket. “You are welcome to stay. Be warned: I snore. Quite loudly.”
“I’m used to sleeping around horses and men. I can ignore a woman’s snore.” Perseus picked his teeth with his fingernail and stood awkwardly, as if he were about to stalk off into the woods for no good reason.
“Either leave or stay,” she commanded. “I can’t abide you quivering between the two.”
“I don’t quiver.”
“You do. You really do. You jitter with indecision. Are you so poised on killing Medusa that you must find her this moment? Or do you fear finding her—or her finding you—and want nothing with the woods and the dark between the trees?”
“I do not fear her, you old leper!” He charged toward her, his cheeks an ugly shade. She sat up, secretly grasping the hilt of a dagger hidden beneath her pillow. Perseus crouched close. Their eyes met, but for a moment. She thought he might see through her ruse. “I can feel her,” he said and tapped his temple. He sat back on his heels, eyes roving the trees tinged orange with firelight.
“Has she any reason to know you are here, searching her out?” she asked.
Perseus bit his perfect, pink, bottom lip.
“How could it.” There was no question.
“Fine,” she said in a lilting voice. “If it might give you ease, lend me your shield. I’ll show you my face, but only its reflection. That may save you the most grotesque details.”
“No,” he said, hanging his head, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“From the stories I’ve heard, if you plan to face Medusa, you’ll need more fortitude than this,” she jibed. “Now, fetch me your shield.” Perseus’ jaw tightened and the veins stood out on his neck. “Besides,” she continued, “I need to change my bandages. It would be a great help to have a mirror.”
This last mollified his injured pride. As he turned away, she hid the dagger in the folds of her robe on her lap and adjusted herself so her back was to the fire.
“Lean the shield against the tree, there. Mind my bow.”
Perseus did as she asked and stepped back, hovering, waiting, hands by his sides.
“Go wait over by the fire and turn your back. Give me a moment to pull the bandages away and see myself before you see me.”
“Yes. Right. Yes,” he fumbled and scampered toward the fire where he crossed his arms and rocked back and forth on his heels.
With no bandages on her face to remove, she took her time, leaning close to the shield. There she was, the same as ever. She knew age would one day take her, if someone didn’t kill her first. If the boy by the fire didn’t kill her. But age had yet to cause the inevitable sag along her jaw or the deep folds at the corners of her eyes. Her childhood hadn’t been exceptionally long, not by human terms. But her womanhood had stood still. She had seen generations of humans come and go and still she remained vibrant. A blessing. A curse.
She pulled back the hood of her robe. For a moment her sun yellow locks were merely hair, but the illusion shattered when a thick strand moved revealing an angular face with glittering onyx eyes and a flicking tongue. Then another appeared. And another. Until a dozen pairs of eyes stared at her reflection, and she at theirs.
“Are you ready? Better or worse than you expected?” he asked.
As if he had any right to ask a woman to reveal herself in such a way. He would never have asked such a thing from a man.
“As I’d expected,” she answered with a deep sigh. She laid her bow in her lap and nocked an arrow. Shifting a bit to better see his reflection, she willed the snake heads surrounding her face to hide themselves. “You may turn around.”
His reflection was dim in the shield. He stepped closer.
“Your hair,” he said softly. She swallowed hard. “I expected it to be white or fallen out.”
She had killed many men who had tried to end her. Why did this boy cause her to doubt, to stay her hand? Because he was only a boy who didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. Perseus’ reflection became clear in the shield.
“What’s this?” he asked, his reflected eyes meeting hers. “You’re beautiful.”
“I know.” A curl atop her head uncoiled and a yellow viper bared its fangs in with a long hiss.
Perseus yelped and danced backward. The stink of his fear set the rest of her hair writhing, licking the sour taste from the air. He stumbled, his eyes white, scrambling for his pack where he’d left Hades’ helm and his harpe, the sword with a sharp hook at its end.
She spun to one knee, drew her bow, and let fly. The arrow buried itself deep in the ground between Perseus’ outstretched hand and the hilt of the adamantine blade.
“Hold, Perseus, and do not look upon me,” she warned. “Close your eyes and listen.”
“I was a fool!” he snapped. “I could sense you, but…”
“You’re young and ignorant of your abilities,” she said, her voice soothing, the same voice she would use to calm a rabbit before slitting its throat. She pulled another arrow from the quiver. “I don’t want to hurt you, Perseus, though you came to harm me.”
“You are evil!” Perseus bellowed. “You desecrated a holy sanctuary, a temple to Athena, and she has cursed you for it.”
“Did I?” she asked. “Was I?”
Perseus stared at his sword and helm, his fingers flexing, body tense, ready.
“Don’t, Perseus. Poseidon forced himself on me in the temple. I didn’t ask for his attention. How do you push away a god? Could you defeat him in combat?”
Perseus relaxed a tick. He crouched on the balls of his feet, forearms on each knee. He turned his head an inch to catch her in his peripheral vision.
“What about your hair? Your…” He gestured to his face.
“Yes, they are both from Athena, given to me as weapons against men who would hurt me. But not only mortals. Gods, too.” She smiled, hoping it would seep into her words. “So, you can surmise where the stories about me originated.”
“And everyone you’ve killed—what of them?”
“Men. All of them. And every one came to murder me. Same as you.”
Perseus bristled at that and shrugged his broad shoulders.
“So, why haven’t you shot me?” he asked. His voice trembled.
“Because your sister is trying to save your life.” She stepped forward, her arrowhead dipping a fraction.
Perseus lunged for his pack. Cursing, she drew her bow and let fly. The arrow pierced his shoulder as he donned Hades’ helm and disappeared. Quick as wind she nocked another arrow, left her quiver by the tree and raced to Perseus’ belongings. The harpe still lay next to the pack, untouched.
“Remember, don’t look at my face,” she said. “That is the quickest way to your death.” His divine energy had vanished, along with his scent and sound. But she knew the lore of the Olympians and their creations. The helm didn’t mask everything.
“I have to kill you,” Perseus said. His voice came from everywhere and nowhere thanks to the helm.
“No,” she said, using her toe to kick up the harpe. She caught its hilt and jabbed the sword, tip down, into the ground. “You can leave me, leave here, and go home.” She turned all her senses to locating Perseus. Her eyes roamed the clearing, particularly the ground. Her vipers tasted blood on the air. Ruby beads of wet dotted hard-packed earth, marking his trail as he circled away, keeping the fire between them.
“I can’t,” Perseus said. He sounded on the verge of tears, his voice thick and his words mumbled.
“Just go!” She jerked her head toward the sea. “I won’t stop you.”
“I have to kill you to save my mother.” She didn’t need to see Perseus to know his goal. She launched her arrow and it struck the tree just above his shield and grabbed up the harpe. The blade hummed as she tested its weight and swiped it through the air. Light and fast for its size, and by far the finest weapon she’d ever held. She advanced, trying to put herself between Perseus and the shield. But he had Hermes’ winged sandals and moved faster than she could. Invisible feet trampled her blankets and the shield bounced into the air before fading from sight. But she knew where he stood and closed in, making a series of swift strikes. Each swipe bounced off the shield, except the last. The sword pulled her swing high. It hit nothing but air. She spun to recover her balance, her hair hissing in irritation. She gave the sword a shake to quiet its unruly, unexpected intelligence.
“I’ll hide from you,” Perseus said. “You have to sleep some time. And then I’ll have your head. You’ve changed nothing with your games.”
“You are so young,” she sighed. “So naive.” She loosened her robe and shrugged it off. Beneath, she wore a hardened leather cuirass over her torso, horn bracers on each forearm, and bronze greaves protecting her legs from knee to ankle. Bandages wound from her hands to elbows, and a loose, white skirt of heavy cloth covered her thighs.
“You think yourself a Myrmidon?” Perseus mocked. “You’re no better than the Amazons, playing in armor and pretending to be a man.”
“The only times I have pretended to be other than I am have been to protect the likes of you.” She dropped her bow next to her quiver and swung the harpe in a wide, thrumming arc. She sucked her teeth, thinking. “All those men I’ve turned to stone, they died only because they sought to wrong me. Poseidon raped me, and I was never going to let that happen again. Being the child of a god is a lonely burden, and my life has been lonelier than most. Luckily, mine has also been a long one. Yours will not be so fruitful.”
She rolled her neck from side to side and let her weight settle into her hips, feet shoulder width apart. His attack would come, and she couldn’t afford to wait for it.
“You need to get that arrow out,” she said with professional ease. “You’re bleeding. Also, I cheated. I poisoned the tip with a concoction I learned from warriors far across the sea to the west. Have your fingers gone numb?”
“I hate you!” Perseus’ bellow sounded like the cry of a child midtantrum. Though his footfalls were silenced, she saw quick smudges on the hard-packed earth. She swung the harpe—again it pulled her attack high. She felt it connect, metal on metal. The sword’s hooked tip knocked the helm from Perseus’ head. He immediately appeared before her, gave her a glancing blow from his shield, and danced away, averting his gaze like someone caught in a lie. He flexed his fingers and shook his head, dazed from her blow.
“Boy, swear to leave and never return. I will spare your life. Give you the antidote. Treat your wounds.” She spread her arms wide. “Just leave me be.”
“I’m not your boy,” Perseus said, nearly choking on the word. “And I will have your head.”
“You’re right,” she huffed. “A boy of mine would never be so stupid.” The dagger in her blanket caught her eye. She flicked it with the toe of her sandal. The dagger landed at Perseus’ feet. “Think of the stories they’ll tell if you can kill me after all this with just that little blade.”
He swept up the dagger and grunted. The arrow still stuck out from his shoulder and he couldn’t bring the dagger up much higher than his waist. Still, he hunkered behind his shield and charged at her. She waited for him, only stepping aside at the last second. He stabbed, a clumsy, ill-timed stroke. She grabbed the edge of his shield and pirouetted. His speed and weight carried him past her, stumbling toward the edge of the clearing. He planted his feet and launched himself toward her, always keeping her only in his peripheral vision.
She raced to his blindside and punched the hooked tip of the harpe into Perseus’ shield. He grunted from the shock. As he pivoted to see her, she reversed her hold on the sword, hooked his ankle, and pulled with all her strength.
Perseus flopped flat on his back. She kicked his shield arm wide and slashed open the muscles just above his elbow. He screamed and tried to roll away. She stepped on the shaft of the arrow buried in his shoulder. His scream renewed. Louder. He turned his face toward her and then remembered to close his eyes.
“Tut,” she admonished. “Don’t look at me.” He made a weak motion with the dagger, but her greave turned aside the blade.
She laid the edge of the harpe against Perseus’ throat. The sword sang, buzzing in her palm with anticipation, urging her to make the cut. Weapons like this didn’t care who they hurt or killed—they hurt with pure disinterest. No matter the wielder, they only wanted one thing: blood.
“Last chance,” she said as Perseus whimpered beneath her. “Go and never return, or—” She let the threat promise hang between them.
“I can’t,” he said, tears flooding his eyes. “I can’t go back without your head. They would mock me, and it would doom my mother.”
“Then leave here and let them believe you dead,” she countered.
“And live with the shame? Where shall I go? What shall I do?”
“Be better. Be at peace. Be a poet or a shepherd. Anything but this.” He lifted the dagger, but it fell from his unresponsive fingers. She shook her head. “It’s too late,” she murmured. “You’ve died of the poison.”
“I don’t want to…” His words disappeared as he struggled to breathe.
“I know.” She lifted the harpe high. It guided her hand with the buzz of a thousand bees and severed his head.
Alone, she built a pyre and wrapped the young man’s body in linen, consecrated him with oil, and burned him. Everything but his head. That sacrilege, she knew, would have consequences. There were always consequences, no matter what choices she made. But she would worry about them later. For now, she had other business to attend.
With the help of Hermes’ winged sandals, she made fast progress, flying from her small refuge in the Aethiopian Sea. Across mountains enveloped by thick emerald and jade jungle, rolling savannas of burnt orange, and searing golden sands, ever east and north she sped until once more the Aegean and the land of her birth lay beneath her. She raced across the sun-dappled waves, feet kissing their crests. She knew these waters well, pocked with islands so close together a Titan could have walked across them without wetting its feet. Too, her parents resided here, somewhere in the deep abyss. She had played among these islands once, as a girl, before she had to worry about men and their deadly advances.
Despite herself, the exhilaration of flight brought a joyful smile to her face. She shouted and soared over one island and its inhabitants, dropped precipitously back to sea level and pulled a wide arc around the next island. A group of great, bronze-feathered cormorants dove into the water and she had to swerve hard to miss them. She resumed her course and pushed eastward. Before long, Serifos appeared, with its knife-sharp cliffs and whip-thin cypress, home to King Polydectes, jailer of Perseus’ mother Danaë.
Chora, the capital city, perched atop the highest mountain, a jewel of white marble shining in the warm sun. The place lay in the grip of a carnival. Like a woman celebrating her marriage, it was bedecked in bright colors; streamers and banners decorated every door and hung thick across the streets. The blare of music and the cheering of games rose high, along with the decidedly metropolitan reek of excrement and smoke and sex.
She paused, hovering in place, surveying the city and its people. At the center of it all stood the opulent palace of Polydectes. She flew down behind the massive wood gates into the main courtyard. Here, men and women lay entwined with one another, laughing, eating, drinking, fucking, without a care but for the pleasure they all felt. Hades’ helm did its job and no one noticed her arrival or passing. From one courtyard to another, from room to room, she wandered the palace until two servant girls hurried past. One mentioned the throne room, and she followed them. They led her past a group of drunken guards in a long hall decorated with columns etched with waves and mosaics of turquoise and lapis. Poseidon. He was never far from the island Greeks.
All around her, on couches and divans, amongst pillows and silk throws, courtiers and courtesans, nobles and servants took their fill of food and wine and each other. At the far end of the hall, on a narrow gilt throne sat King Polydectes, a shift about his thighs and his silver crown askew upon his brow. Across his lap lay a woman with unruly brown locks, smooth olive skin, and a cascade of freckles on her cheeks and shoulders. Naked but for a wisp of gauzy linen that did nothing to conceal her breasts, she twined her fingers in Polydectes’ blue-black ringlets and laughed at a joke only the two of them could hear.
With a deep breath, she bent forward and removed her helm, sure to leave her hood in place. A gasp shuddered through the hall. She had dressed in Perseus’ cloak and bore his shield. The harpe hung from her belt at her side. She pulled loose the knapsack slung over her shoulder, its cloth stained rusty brown with dried blood.
The smile froze on Polydectes’ face, and his eyes went white with fear. The woman blanched and she rolled off the king’s lap, clinging the scrap of cloth to her naked bosom while scrabbling for any other garment that may lay close to hand.
Knapsack in one hand, helm in the other, she strode the length of the hall.
“Perseus! You’ve returned!” Polydectes declared, projecting strength, though his voice shook. “Behold! Your son has come home.” This he said to the woman pushing her arms into the sleeves of a too-big robe at his feet. “Have you brought me what I asked?” Polydectes raised his arms as if inviting an embrace. “Is that the Medusa’s head?”
She stopped. His words hit her a physical blow. No matter how often she heard others talk about killing her, the words never lost their sting. She dropped the helm to the floor with a clatter and pulled the head out of the sack and held it aloft by its hair.
For a moment, the woman just stared at it in disgust. Then realization crept across her face as the dead eyes of her son stared from his bloated, blackening face. Polydectes tittered a high-pitched laugh.
“Oh, she is quite dead,” he said. Anything more the king may have said died in his throat as he realized Perseus was dead.
Polydectes cocked his head. What he was seeing making no sense to him. She tugged back her hood and stared him full in the face. Slowly, steadily, she turned, letting everyone assembled in the throne room see that she was not Perseus, but the woman they had sent him to slay.
Many stared back at her, puzzled by what they were witnessing. No one ran. Rather, they craned their heads to get a better look. Until Polydectes screamed. She knew it would come. They always screamed when they realized their feet had turned to stone and they were going to die. Another man in the crowd found his feet frozen to the floor. He screamed too. And another. Then another. Soon, the screams, the weeping, the useless gabbling pleas of dying men filled the hall.
The women screamed too, not for their lives, but in terror as they watched the men turn to stone. The sound was new for her. Women had never attacked her physically, though she’d weathered their disdain plenty. Her face did not petrify women, and she never wanted it to. Still, they fled for the doors. Guards thought better of entering when they witnessed their comrades and other men half-turned to statues.
Polydectes gurgled his last and went silent as his throat turned to stone.
She stepped up to the woman at the dead king’s feet. “Danaë?” she asked, replacing Perseus’ head in the sack. For a moment she feared the woman may have petrified, so still and hard her expression.
“Danaë!” she shouted, grabbing the woman’s chin and forcing her to focus. “You’re free. You can leave.”
“Leave? Leave!” Danaë jerked her face away from her hand. “I don’t want to leave!”
“But Perseus said—”
“I don’t care what my son said,” Danaë spat. “He wanted me to leave. Not I.”
“I came here to help you, to get you out,” she said. Her hair writhed and hissed in anger as she understood the truth. “He tried to murder me!” she snarled through clenched teeth.
“He didn’t have to hunt you, monster,” Danaë countered, pulling the robe close around her. “Guards!”
“You wanted him to die.” She pulled Danaë close by her collar so they almost touched noses.
“I love Polydectes!” Danaë said and tried to pull away, get distance between her and the halo of angry snakes.
“More than your own son?” Her spit flecked Danaë’s brown freckled cheeks.
A viper bit Danaë in the jaw, leaving two holes weeping blood and venom. Her skin turned green from the poison. Another bit her nose. Two struck her cheeks, while another latched onto her neck and emptied his glands. Danaë choked and went rigid, convulsing.
She pushed the dying woman away, her hair standing out from her head, hissing, looking for others to bite. All had left the room save a few young girls too frightened to move, transfixed by the scene before them. Men shouted from somewhere else in the palace. They would make a drunken attack before long.
She picked up Hades’ helm and tied the knapsack over her shoulder. She patted the head inside.
“I’ll bury you with the rest of your body so you’re whole for your trip across the Styx.”
She put on the helm.
“But first we need to help a woman named Andromeda, another innocent afflicted by Poseidon.” She winged out of the throne room and into the sky. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her on the way.”
Tim Kidwell has been telling stories for as long as he can remember. He’s been the editor-in-chief of a technology magazine, developed tabletop board and role-playing games, and has had the luck to see a number of short stories published, including one co-written with best-selling author Margaret Weis. He and his wife live in southeastern Wisconsin with their two children, a Siberian husky named Aisling, and a cat called Nekko Fireball.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “She Is Medusa”:
In the cover letter for his submission, author Tim Kidwell told us, “Despite what some may say, social media ain’t all bad. Last year, a photograph of a sculpture was making the rounds on Twitter. This sculpture flipped the classic Greek image of Perseus holding Medusa’s head aloft by depicting Medusa the victor of their mythic encounter and she holding his head. This inspired me to write ‘She is Medusa.’”
The inspiration served him well because he gave us indeed a compelling and well-written piece.