The Temple of Hera happened to be the last place Maya wanted to visit. She met the goddess face-to-face, did her bidding and was never impressed. The last time they parted ways, Hera’s back was to her and she was running towards Mount Olympus. Maya wasn’t naïve enough to think she’d be so lucky again. Not without Thanatos and her children ready to back her in a fight.
She missed her children, but knew their separation was for the best. If she brought back harpies or griffins, the townspeople would have killed them without asking questions. A few moved closer to her, staying in the shadows of the surrounding forest. When she had a free moment, she would sneak down to visit. Other times, the gray squirrel Spiro or his daughter Admeta would bring news of her children’s activities.
Near to the woods where they stayed were the King’s Stables. This is where Maya ran off to whenever her mother ordered her to the Temple. Her brother, Marcus, who worked as a stable boy, had yet to tell their parents about her frequent trips to the stables. Whether this was due to his admiration and loyalty to his sister or because he hadn’t thought to tell them, Maya couldn’t be sure. In case it was the latter, she decided not to ask.
“Maya, my beautiful young friend. So nice to see you.” Ipolit hugged Maya as she entered, filling her nostrils with the scent of fresh hay and sweet apples going sour. She breathed it all in, the smells bringing back memories of Antioco, the black stallion who became her only friend on Hera’s island. “It is always nice to be greeted in such a manner. Mother is never happy to see me anymore. I think she would have preferred it if I had drowned.”
“Tsk, tsk, Maya. If she knew what you went through, she would think differently.”
“If she knew what I’ve done, she would disown me and toss me into the sea herself.” The old stable master smiled and followed as Maya made her way down to the vacant stalls at the end. Only a few months ago, they housed two of the finest horses ever seen in Elpis. One turned out to be Thanatos, God of the Dead and the other Maya’s friend and companion, Antioco. That he had also been the father of the centaur abomination, Ercole, was something the stable master was still coming to terms with.
“Have you found a replacement for young Alexander yet?”
“No,” Ipolit shook his head. “It isn’t easy to find a family willing to let their son work in a stable where strange occurrences have been rumored to take place.” Alexander had been younger than Marcus by a few years. When the centaur Ercole came through, spreading Hera’s message and recruiting for her army, Alexander saw it as a chance to be heroic. He ran off to join, only to be sadly disillusioned when the real face of Hera was revealed.
Disgusted with himself and his rashness, Alexander was afraid to return home. When Hera returned to her own castle, Alexander decided to stay with the griffin Theo. Together they trained the rest of Maya’s children, preparing for Hera’s return.
Ipolit hadn’t fared as well getting a recruit. Alexander’s disappearance along with horses who could open their own gate sparked rumors. Rumors were bad if you wanted to quiet superstitions.
“I’m sorry. I will keep an ear out for you. I’m sure there must be some young man looking for a trade.”
“Thank you, my dear. For now, I just work your brother twice as hard. Keeps him honest and out of trouble.” He winked, wrinkling up the scruff of his beard in the effort.
“I’m heading out to the forest. If anyone comes looking for me, I’ve gone off to pick mushrooms.”
“You may want to bring a basket and pick a few if you want your story to hold up.” Ipolit handed her a basket from a shelf near the stable staff’s eating area.
“I thank you again. If there is any word, I will let you know.” With basket in hand, Maya made her way across the fields to the gate Antioco and Thanatos used many times to escape. They liked to take long walks in the woods and plan. Now it was left up to Maya to continue where they left off.
The woods darkened the farther she went, making it difficult to see much of anything. A branch to her left cracked, accompanied by a flurry of wings.
“Ach, look sister. It is Mother, come for a visit.”
“Yes, yes. Mother must miss me.”
“No, sister. It is me Mother missed.”
“Hello my beautiful daughters. I apologize for not seeing you sooner, but my eyes had not adjusted to the darkness.”
“Ach, do you see us now?” A hideous face pressed into Maya’s, hitting her full on with the putrid breath of a scavenger. It was female in essence, and might be pretty if it weren’t for the sharpened teeth and splattering of blood and gore. Next to it sat its mirror image.
“I see you very well, Helena. You too, Helen.” The two harpies cackled with glee. They may not have much respect for humans, but they adored their mother. To her credit, Maya loved them back.
“Has Mother been looking for another funny horsey? We know how sad you were to lose him.” Helena hopped on the branch, nearly dislodging her sister.
“No, stupid. Mother would not replace the great Antioco. How can one love the same way?” Helen spat, regaining her perch.
“Men would be stupid not to love Mother.”
“Yes, in this we agree. But Mother would not wish to love another. The great Antioco was the only one of his kind.”
“Of this you speak the truth. Even among our brothers, the equal of Mother’s love and companion cannot be found.” The harpies hung their heads.
“I’m sorry, daughters, but as you have said, I am not ready to love again. My heart was broken once and I’m not ready to have it broken again. Such a love is a burden and weakness. One Hera will exploit and use against me again if given the chance. I must wait until our quarrel is at an end before I find another to fill Antioco’s place in my heart.”
“When Mother is ready, we will help. We are very good at finding nice men.”
“Yes, but we eat them,” Helen said.
“We will not eat Mother’s companion. This we promise.” Both harpies bobbed their heads in unison.
“Thank you. You are both a blessing.” Maya continued on, leaving the harpies behind to guard the secrets the rest of the forest held.
A little farther on, the trees above Maya rustled and a small brown face peeked through.
“Great Mother Maya, is that you?”
“It is. Good morning, Admeta. Is your father off somewhere today?”
“No. He be in the trees nearby. Meeting with messengers.”
“Birds from far away. They bring news. Much news.”
“What sort of news?” Most times, birds traveling for the changing season would stop and bring information from the outside world. Usually nothing more than new buildings taking the place of wooded homes or new and wondrous plants appearing near a favorite resting place. Something in the way Admeta said it made Maya think the news was something more.
“I don’t know. Father said to go, find something useful to do. So, I find you. Very useful, yes?”
“Yes, that was very useful. Can you bring me to Spiro? I would like to know what is going on.”
“Yes, Mistress Maya. This way.” The squirrel popped her head back into the trees and took off running, leaping from branch to branch. On the ground, Maya followed her progress by the shaking of the leaves.
Eventually the trees thinned and a small clearing came into view. The forest animals and her children used the space as a council room since not every creature was equipped for perching on branches. It was also large enough to contain most of them and far enough in the woods to keep outsiders from accidentally stumbling upon a meeting in session. At the far end, twittering and squeaking could be heard, along with the cracking of tree branches and fluttering of wings.
“Sounds like a lively debate going on,” Maya murmured. Admeta vaulted from the trees and landed in front of her.
“Strange birds no are happy. They bring back rumors. Bad things are happening.”
“Let’s go find out what kind of bad things we’re talking about.” Together they crossed the clearing, the noise from the meeting getting louder.
“Father Spiro,” Admeta shouted, scrambling up the nearest tree.
“I told you to go and find something to do. Leave us and do not interrupt again.”
“But, Father, I bring Mistress Maya.” The chatter above stopped as every creature listened.
“Mistress Maya is here? You should have said so first, before crashing through the trees and disturbing our meeting.” Admeta came down the tree again, joined by an older gray squirrel.
“Mistress Maya, so good to see you again. We have much to talk about. Let me finish meeting with our bird friends and then we shall discuss.”
“Many things, Mistress Maya. Many strange and worrisome things.”
“I’ll wait for your consul in the grove.”
“Good. Admeta, please go with Mistress Maya and see that she is taken care of until I can attend her myself.”
“Yes, Father. Come, Mistress. We go this way.” The young squirrel scampered across the clearing and into a stand of traveler’s pines with Maya close behind. As Maya pushed her way through the branches, they closed back together, obscuring her passage. Under their limbs, thick with needles, was an open canopy. Here Admeta and Spiro lived, their quarters spacious to entertain visiting creatures. The boughs provided natural protection from the elements, keeping its inhabitants warm, dry and comfortable.
“Sit, Mistress. I get you food. Drink. What do you want? Nut? Berry?”
“Thank you, Admeta, but I’m not hungry.”
“You sure? It no trouble. We keep piles of food for guests.” Admeta gestured towards where other traveler’s pines surrounded them.
“How many guests do you get?”
“Depend on season. Lots when weather gets warmer or colder. Birdies mostly. Some others. A few of your children come and go. They like to keep in contact.”
“How many are here now?”
“Many. More than we ever had at once.” She stood on her hind legs and spun around, pointing to other pines and their inhabitants currently hidden from view. “Normal birdies staying there. Birdies meeting with Father there. Tree-folks visiting stay there. Mistress’ children staying there.”
“My children are here? Who?”
“The lion-bird one. He come with man-child Alexander.” Maya stood and went to the tree indicated by Admeta. Pushing through the branches, she entered another living space. This one was occupied by a large griffin who took up most of the space and her brother’s former friend and fellow stable boy.
“Alexander. Theo. I’m so happy to see you.” Maya threw her arms around the boy and griffin in turn. As she hugged Theo, she buried her face into the soft fur of his shoulder.
“Maya. How is old Ipolit? Has he gotten another stable boy yet?”
“Not yet. Are you interested in returning? I’m sure he’d be glad to have you back. I know Marcus would be.”
“You know the answer to that, Maya. There is too much to be done out here. More recruits show up all the time. Children of yours who didn’t answer the call the first time and children who had been on the wrong side. Every once in a while, we get an animal. Some were on the island with you. Some hear about what Hera did and fear what she could do if she returns.”
“And all of them join?”
“So far.” Maya reached out and tousled Alexander’s hair. He wasn’t a little boy anymore, but the gesture was instinctive. This was no longer the scrawny child she once knew, who couldn’t lift a bow or shoot an arrow when he first met Theo. His time in training built his muscles and hardened his body. In such a short time, he had grown up. He may only be twelve years old by the marks on a calendar, but mentally and maturity-wise, he was older than many of the men sitting on councils. He witnessed much since he left the safety of the stables and such events aged a person. Maya knew this as well. Responsibility is a heavy burden.
“What other news do you have?”
“There is talk of Hera. None know what she is planning, but she has been coming and going from her home on Mount Olympus. We hoped to learn more here. That is why we returned.”
“Spiro is talking with some birds now. I will let you know when he returns and we can all discuss what is happening together. Perhaps we can all piece together what Hera is planning and stop it before it starts.”
“We can only hope such a thing is possible,” Theo rumbled. “Let us see what comes of Spiro’s talks.” The griffin stretched and laid his head on his giant paws. Soon snoring sounded from the great beast.
“Apologies, Maya. We have been traveling quite a bit and only recently arrived. It seems to have taken a toll on Theo.”
“Do not apologize. Get some rest yourself. It could be some time before Spiro is done with the foreigners.” Without another word, Maya pushed back into the squirrels’ quarters, leaving the two warriors to sleep.