“Release the Hydra!”
Surrounded by her handmaidens and guards armed with spears, Queen Cassandra issued the command from her royal box in the center of the stone arena built into the surrounding hillside above the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete.
The stands were full, each section occupied, as a thousand subjects from every walk of life on the island had put aside their daily lives to witness this spectacle. Each soul in attendance had heard of the Queen’s wrath following Ulysses rejection of her amorous advances. Now they watched on the edge of their seats as a lone figure tied to a pole in the center of the arena struggled against his bonds while the green, twenty-foot-tall, seven-headed, snake-like creature, slithered toward its prey, fangs drooling venom as it moved.
Queen Cassandra widowed at a young age when her husband died while capturing and imprisoning the fierce Hydra had grown more withdrawn as the years slipped by, turning from a bright, vibrant, free-spirited girl into a sad young woman, hidden away from the world in the Koules Fortress, disappointed in what life had dealt her.
When violent Mediterranean storms had interrupted Ulysses latest quest, damaging his ships and costing him three companions, he had made for the closest harbor which was Heraklion for repairs and to replenish supplies.
As soon the handsome, muscular Ulysses, resplendent in his red, flowing toga, cape, and calf-high leather sandals appeared before Queen Cassandra to ask for her assistance, she quickly agreed and declared a week of festivities complete with endless banquets and displays of weaponry and physical prowess. Ulysses, of course, won all the contests as well as the Queen’s heart.
At the week’s end, with his two ships repaired and their holds filled with provisions, Ulysses appeared before the Queen to thank her for her hospitality. When she expressed her affection for him and asked him to stay, Ulysses told her he was already pledged to another, the Goddess Diana, the Huntress. He explained that Diana’s father, Jupiter, had challenged Ulysses to a series of tasks to prove his love for Diana and to win the throne, so he must, unfortunately, say farewell to the generous Queen of Crete and continue onward with his quest.
Queen Cassandra nodded her understanding and immediately had Ulysses arrested and hauled off to the dungeons. When his men protested the next day that their captain had been detained, they too were thrown into the dungeon alongside their leader.
The Queen’s home, the Koules Fortress, sat next to the harbor in Heraklion (or as some called it, Iraklion), practically at sea level. The dungeons carved out of the foundation, consisted of a series of caves with heavy iron bars for doors and solid rock walls dripping with moisture, and crawling with insects and rats.
To say the accommodations were sparse would be a gross understatement…a pile of moldy straw for a mattress, a wooden tub for a toilet, the only daylight coming from a tiny barred window on the seawall…and at night, total darkness…except for a distant torch located near the guard. In a cruel twist of fate, the prisoners could constantly hear the waves lapping against their ships in the harbor…freedom less than thirty yards away, but unreachable.
For two weeks they remained there with no word from the Queen until one day the guards came for Ulysses and led him up to the main floor of the Koules Fortress. He had to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight as he climbed a series of stone steps until reaching the upper level where he was shoved into a bedchamber…and the huge wooden door slammed and locked behind him.
Ulysses looked around the room. A unicorn tapestry covered one wall. A four-poster bed set in the center, covered in animal furs. He crossed to the four-foot high rectangular window carved into the thick stone wall and peered out. They had brought him to the top of the north tower nearly a hundred feet off the ground, impossible to escape, even if he could squeeze through the narrow opening.
He turned as the hinges on the only entrance to the chamber creaked. The guard let in three women, barely clothed, one more lovely than the next. A five-foot-ten inch brunette approached him. “Take off your clothes.”
Ulysses blinked. The woman expounded. “I am Hera. We are the Queen’s handmaidens. We are to prepare you for your next meeting with her highness. Come with me.”
She led Ulysses into the bath where the other two women had already poured water infused with milk and a musky scent into a large bronze tub resting on what looked like tiger paws. Hera moved in close and removed his belt and then undid the shoulder ornamental clasp to his linen Himation (cloak), dropping it to the Carrera marble floor. All that remained was his thin, practically see-through Chilton (tunic). She slid off the straps and his undergarment joined the Himation on the ground. Hera knelt down, her head dangerously close to his exposed manly parts, as she carefully unwrapped and removed his sandals.
She guided him into the tub where he stood unmoving as the ladies working in tandem thoroughly scrubbed down every inch with sea sponges and soap. When satisfied, the handmaidens dried him off, anointed him with scented oils, and redressed him with a fresh tunic, and simple flat sandals.
Hera said, “The Queen will see you now.”
The guard led Ulysses to an even larger chamber where Queen Cassandra waited, reclining on her bed, wearing only a sheer tunic herself; the traditional Strophion undergarment mysteriously missing. A strong ray of colorful light from the ceiling-high stain glass window put all her attributes on display including her long blond hair cascading nearly to the floor and a beauty that only existed in dreams. She dismissed the guard, who with eyes down, backed out of the room, continuously bowing as he went.
Ulysses bent low from the waist and then returned to his full six-foot-two height. He spoke, his voice rough from two weeks sleeping on the damp stone floor in the dungeons.
“My Queen, have you decided to let me continue my journey?”
She rose and approached Ulysses, passing close enough to whisper in his ear as she circled him.
“Why would I let you continue a quest to win the hand of another woman?”
“You are the most beautiful and desirable woman, my Queen, but I am pledged.”
Cassandra continued circling, her hands touching here and there, lingering just long enough to be provocative.
“Are you not the same brave Ulysses, whose tales are known far and wide, for defeating Cyclops, and avoiding death even from the fierce wrath of Neptune himself? Are you not a man who can decide his own fate?”
“Then stay. I ask no quests, no pledge, no promises, just for you to be by my side and rule this kingdom.”
Queen Cassandra pressed her body against his and kissed him with a heated passion. When Ulysses did not respond, she pushed him away, and then took a full swing, slapping him with enough force to knock him off balance.
“Guard,” she screamed, “Back to the dungeon.”
Ulysses strained at his bindings. His pleadings had failed. The Queen had refused to let them go and his continued rejection of her had brought him to this.
When first released, the Hydra had explored its surroundings in the arena, hissing at the mob screaming for Ulysses death, but soon spotted him trussed up like a prize game bird and ready for roasting. As the beast advanced toward him at a steady pace, Ulysses called out to the Queen.
“Is this how you treat the ones you love? Cut me loose and give me a weapon so I have at least a fighting chance against the Hydra.”
She shouted back. “Did you give me a chance?” The crowd roared its approval.
Ulysses continued working the leather thongs behind his back and almost had his right hand free, but could he escape before the Hydra ended his days? He noticed the Queen’s handmaidens were no longer in the royal box and wondered briefly if they could not bear to watch his demise. Fingers raw from the effort, he continued to dig at the leather straps that held him to the pole. He felt the knot finally give and with his hands free, he began ripping at the bindings around his ankles.
The monster’s eyes glared as it came upon Ulysses just as he broke loose, one giant head snapping at the pole, shattering it into kindling, while a second head with its four-inch-long teeth ripped the cape from his back as he threw himself to the sand narrowly avoiding death. Ulysses rose to his feet and ran with the Hydra in close pursuit. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up; the beast moved quickly for its size; if only he had a weapon.
He prayed to Zeus to give him strength as he circled back to the shattered pole in the center of the arena to gather two foot long slivers of wood. If he could blind even one of the seven heads, it might give him a slight edge. He slowed and allowed the monster to approach, his back against the arena wall directly below the Queen.
The Hydra towered over Ulysses, lowering its heads until he was surrounded on three sides, with the beast close enough to smell its foul breath. One head, slightly larger than the others, advanced, but before the monster could open its jaws wide enough to swallow him, Ulysses jabbed both wood shards into the beast’s eyes, Hydra screamed, jerking its heads high toward the sky, rearing up on its hind feet, giving Ulysses a chance to run past it and sprint toward the beast’s cave, whose iron gate remained open.
The entire arena audience rose to its feet, their roars of approval at the foot race below exceeding even the roars of pain from the Hydra. Ulysses stumbled in the sand a few yards from the exit, allowing the beast time to catch up, but before a very angry Hydra reached him, out of the opening sprang all of Ulysses’ men, fully armed.
Aegeus, Ulysses second-in-command, tossed him a sword. “Let’s kill this beast.”
The men attacked the Hydra on all fronts with spears and swords, and the battle ensued. They fought bravely for almost an hour but gained no advantage because true to the legend, as soon as one head was sliced off, another grew in its place. When two of his men lay bloody on the ground, likely dead, Ulysses tried a desperate move, slipping under the Hydra, cutting open a four-foot slash its belly, and then escaping out the other side, before pounds of intestines spilled onto his head. This did momentarily slow the animal, dimming its fierceness, but not killing it or the beast’s obvious desire to continue destroying its enemies.
Ulysses shouted to his men. “Grab the wounded and flee. We can not win this.”
Defending themselves as they went, the men backed into the monster’s cave and the second the last man was inside, Ulysses released the latch holding up the massive iron gate. It slammed to the ground, cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads in the process, and protecting them from further attack. The frustrated beast backed away, hissing.
No one stood against them as they exited through a narrow passageway in the back of the cave and quickly made their way from the arena, through the streets of Heraklion to the harbor where their two ships awaited.
Boarding, Ulysses turned to Aegeus. “How did you escape the dungeons?”
Aegeus smiled. “A vision named Hera in flowing white robes came with a set of keys, released us, led us to the armory and then showed us the hidden entrance to the Hydra’s cave. There were no guards anywhere.”
At Ulysses’ command, the men cast off the ropes, unfurled the sails and began steering the boats out of the harbor toward the open sea.
“The Gods have smiled on us, Aegeus. Zeus must have answered my prayer.”
Aegeus said, “You need not look to the Gods for our rescue, Ulysses. Gaze back at yonder balcony on the Koules Fortress.”
Ulysses raised his eyes to Queen Cassandra who with folded hands, long blond hair swaying in the wind, handmaidens at her side, silently watched them sail away.