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HUNTING THE BOAR
"Odysseus! Odysseus! Where are you?" Beads of sweat ran down the boy's face as he called. His tunic—white when he had started the climb and now a moist grey—clung to his scrawny back. His padded linen leggings were scuffed and torn. He had lost his hat some time back.
Above him loomed the double peaks of Parnassus, a faint glint of snow visible on the heights. Just the glimpse of the snow made him feel cold, and he shivered. In the light of early dawn long, jagged shadows lanced out from rocks and trees. That too, made him tremble.
He was about to call again when he felt a tug at the hem of his tunic, then a yank, and suddenly he was pulled forward, off his feet, his face ground into the grass.
"Mentor," came a harsh whisper, "if you can't keep up, at least keep quiet!"
Spitting out a blade of grass, Mentor sat up and glared at Odysseus, who was crouching beside him, a long spear clutched in his hand.
"I tried to keep up, but you were going too fast." Mentor set down his own javelin and checked himself all over for bruises. "And I still don't understand why we couldn't wait till after breakfast. I have no strength for climbing when my belly is empty."
Odysseus never looked at his friend but kept scanning the bushes and the scruffy ground between trees. "My grandfather says it's best to track an animal first thing in the morning, while it's—"
"—sluggish," Mentor finished for him. "I remember. But I also remember your father warning me: 'Keep Odysseus out of trouble, because it is as certain as Hades his grandfather will not.'"
Odysseus' face got as red as his hair. "I'm not in trouble."
"You will be," Mentor said smugly, "when your grandfather finds out you took his prize hunting spear!"
Only then did Odysseus turn, his broad face marred with a crease that ran between his eyebrows. Someone else might think that was a worry line. But Mentor had known Odysseus since childhood. That line was a sign that Odysseus was about to come up with an outlandish excuse—lie, fib, wile—for doing something he'd already decided to do. He'd call it a reason, of course, but reason was the one thing it wouldn't be.
"The spear was just hanging there in Grandfather's storeroom gathering dust," Odysseus said. "In the midst of all those old shaggy pelts and mouldy tusks, and piles of copper and gold." He grinned. "Besides, Grandfather always did admire a nimble bit of thieving. That's what he's famous for, after all!"
"Your own javelin would have done as well," said Mentor, sighing. "That spear is much too big for you."
In fact the spear was a good two feet longer than Odysseus, and he could barely stretch his fingers around the shaft. But he wasn't going to admit that to Mentor. Instead he shrugged. The vertical line between his brows got deeper.
"You need a proper weapon to slay a beast like the Boar of Parnassus, not a sewing needle like yours." Odysseus glanced disdainfully at Mentor's javelin. "Besides, I don't plan to throw the spear from any great distance. There's nothing heroic in that. We'll make the boar come right up to us."
Mentor stood and brushed off his clothes. "This is a bad idea, Odysseus." He looked around at the scrub bushes, perfect hiding places for wild animals. "We should have a whole hunting party with us, with hounds and—"
"So the dogs can do the hunting for us and the real men run ahead, and we don't even get a glimpse of the quarry till the hunt is all over?" Odysseus stood as well. In perfect imitation of one of his grandfather's servants, he said in a high, breathy voice, "Oh, Prince Odysseus, it's too dangerous. You don't want to stain your fine tunic. You're too small to handle the great big grown-up spear. You're only thirteen years old!"
Odysseus said the last with such scorn, Mentor bowed his head, resigned to the fact that he'd already lost this argument an hour ago, when Odysseus had shaken him awake on his sleeping pallet. But he hoped to inject at least a small note of caution into their adventure. Anything to keep Odysseus safe—in spite of himself.
"How are we going to find this boar?" Mentor asked.
"I think we already have." Odysseus knelt again and yanked Mentor down after him. "Smell that!"
Mentor sniffed but smelled nothing unusual. "I don't—"
"Shhhhh!" Odysseus' angry hiss silenced him.
They got down on their bellies and slid through the undergrowth, Odysseus in the lead.
I hope, Mentor thought, that my tunic can be mended. I am not so sure about my knees.
The bushes all seemed to have thorns, and the crawl took a long time. Mentor knew better than to complain again. He didn't want to face more of Odysseus' withering scorn. But at last they got through to the other side of the brambles. Odysseus squatted and signalled with his hand for Mentor to do the same.
"There—see that goat trail?"
Mentor squinted. "Yes—so?"
"There in the middle. Boar spoor. A whole pile of it."
Mentor wrinkled his nose. Now he could smell it.
"Fresh too," Odysseus said. "Probably his first of the day."
"You're certain it's the right beast?" Mentor asked. Like Odysseus, he'd never actually been on a boar hunt, only heard the boasts of men when they had drunk too much wine at a feast. But he knew a boar was a fast beast and, when angered or even just slightly annoyed, a boar could be deadly.
"Deer keep free of these trails," Odysseus said with great authority, though there was that deep line between his eyes again. "And the spoor is too big for sheep or goat." He eased himself back into the bushes. Mentor did the same.
"You can't be completely sure ..." Mentor didn't want to believe Odysseus. He didn't want to encounter a real boar. Not now, with only his small javelin. His "sewing needle". Not on such a lovely summer day. Not—
"There are lots of birds' nests in these bushes," Odysseus continued. "Eggs are one of a boar's favourite treats. And if you will just shut up for a moment, Mentor, we might even be able to hear him coming."
A hundred objections sprang into Mentor's mind. But he could tell that Odysseus was in no mood for any of them.
Just then Odysseus' eyebrows, like two wings of flame, went up, and his fingers tightened on the shaft of the great spear. "Listen!"
Mentor strained to hear something. Except for the breeze teasing the tops of the bushes, except for the faraway whit-whit-whit of a partridge, all he could hear was the dull drumming of his own blood.
And then he too heard the sound. It was a brutish commotion, as if some bulky creature was forcing its way through the bushes, trampling on the scrub; like a long and awful sentence punctuated with grunts.
"How close ...?" Mentor managed to get out of his dry mouth.
"Let's find out," Odysseus said.
"Let's not!" Mentor whispered, but it was too late. Odysseus was already crawling forward, already up on one knee, the long spear uplifted in his right hand. His left hand pointed towards the east.
Carefully Mentor poked his head up through the bushes.
The boar—black as a cave's mouth—was a good bow shot away, ripping up bushes with its enormous tusks.
Suddenly, hiding in the bushes didn't seem like such a good idea.
Mentor hissed to Odysseus, "It's as big as a mule."
"Bigger!" Odysseus smiled, then for a moment looked over his shoulder. "What's wrong with you, Mentor? We've been on hunts before."
"Hares," Mentor said frantically. "Wild sheep. Deer. Nothing with tusks!" Mentor could feel his voice rise. "And this boar has already killed three men, has made orphans of nine children."
"Then our glory will be all the greater when we slay it," said Odysseus. His eyes were enormous.CHAPTER 2
"We need to get the boar's attention," Odysseus said.
"No, we don't."
Odysseus ignored him. "So this is what I want you to do."
Mentor's mouth went even drier, if that was possible. "Me?"
"Just stand up and wave your arms. Till the boar sees you."
"Me?" Now his mouth felt like it was stuffed with Egyptian cotton.
"Stop worrying," Odysseus said. "Boars have notoriously bad eyesight."
"I'm sure that's a great comfort."
Odysseus sighed and shifted his weight. He put his left hand around his right wrist to help hold the weight of the spear. "Really—there's nothing to worry about, Mentor."
"I hate it when you say that."
The big black boar had trotted over to another patch of brush and was now ripping it up and grunting with pleasure.
"Look," Odysseus whispered, "I'll be hidden right here in front of you. As soon as the boar comes close, I'll jump up and spear him. Just like my father did when he and the other heroes slew the great boar of Calydon."
"I thought the great boar of Calydon killed or maimed half of the men in the hunt before anyone slew him," Mentor said.
"Do you want to be a hero or not?" asked Odysseus.
"Right now," Mentor said carefully, trying not to let the hand holding the sewing-needle javelin shake too much, "I'm not sure."
Odysseus sighed. "If we go back with no prize to show, we're going to look like fools. Or worse. Like cowards!"
"We'll only look like boys, Odysseus. Which we are." Mentor knew the argument was already lost. There was no greater disgrace for an Achaean warrior than to be thought a coward—man or boy. He stood slowly and waved his hands. "This is a really bad idea."
The black boar ignored him and continued rooting in the briars.
Mentor waved his hands more vigorously.
"Don't you feel like a hero now?" Odysseus asked.
"I feel like a fool," Mentor answered flatly. "I just don't want to feel like a dead fool. How fast do you suppose that boar can run between its bit of brush and ours?"
"Not so fast that I can't get my spear into it," said Odysseus. He was holding the spear with both hands now. "Shout, Mentor! Let it know you're over here."
"Hoi! Widow maker! Over this way," Mentor cried.
The black boar paused in its egg hunt and looked up. Its small piggy eyes searched out the source of the sound. Swinging its massive head back and forth, it finally focused directly on Mentor.
"Again," Odysseus whispered. "You've got his attention now."
Mentor's lips felt more padded than his leggings. He couldn't make another sound. The boar was now heading towards their thicket at a lope.
"Is it coming?" Odysseus whispered.
All Mentor could manage was a grunt, much like the boar's.
Slowly Odysseus stood, peering over the bush. He could feel the boar's hooves drumming on the earth. Then he saw it.
"What a monster!" he cried appreciatively.
Behind him Mentor was silent.
"I'm ready," Odysseus cried. "Hold your ground, Mentor. Keep him coming."
"I don't ..." Mentor managed to croak, "don't think I could stop it if I tried."
The boar was now only a few yards away. Its tusks seemed gigantic and sharp and curved and deadly.
Finally upright, Odysseus braced the long spear against his body, the bronze point aimed at the boar's heart.
The boar lowered its head for the attack, grunted twice, and then ploughed into the brush.
Bronze spearhead met bristly hide right above the breastbone, lodging there for a moment before the wooden spear shaft snapped in two. The broken stump of the weapon dropped from Odysseus' numbed hands.
"Oooof!" he grunted.
Mentor shrieked, "Odysseus, no!"
Odysseus twisted away from the boar's continuing charge, but a second too late. One of the tusks scored a ragged gash down his right thigh. Like lightning, pain flashed along his leg. He fell back against Mentor, biting back a scream.
The boar ran on past them, further into the brush.
"Odysseus—are you alive?" Mentor cried.
"Get ... your ... javelin." Odysseus' face was screwed in pain.
Only then did Mentor realise that he had dropped the thing. He bent to pick it up and when he stood again, he saw that the boar had broken through the other side of the thicket and was making a large circle back towards them, snorting with rage.
"One ... good ... throw ..." said Odysseus, carefully speaking through his pain. "That's ... all ... you ... need."
Mentor licked his dry lips and hefted the javelin in his right hand. He had thrown in competition with other boys, had hunted small game, but how could he hope to stop this great beast with what was really no more than a toy?
"Look ... in ... eye ..." Odysseus said.
Mentor could hardly breathe. He kept his own eye fixed on the boar. His heart seemed to be pounding in time with the boar's hoofbeats.
And then—as the beast came within striking range—Mentor felt his own breath stop. His arm seemed to drive forward by itself, sending the javelin flying. The javelin wobbled a bit in its flight, and the sound it made was a strange whoosh.
Then everything went dark.
Eyes closed, Mentor waited for the boar to rip him to shreds.
"You ... did ... it!" Odysseus was hitting him on the leg.
Mentor opened his eyes. The boar was speeding away from them, the javelin trailing from its flank.
"But I didn't kill it," Mentor said miserably. "All I did was make it madder." He paused. "And lost us our only weapon."
"Real ... weapon ... here," said Odysseus, touching a finger to his head. "Help ... me ... up!"
"You can't run on that leg," Mentor said.
"Not ... run," Odysseus told him. "Roll." He pointed behind them to the steep slope.
Glancing nervously over at the boar, which had now managed to shake the small javelin loose, Mentor whispered, "Are you crazy, Odysseus? That slope's a hundred feet down if it's a—"
"Take ... hold." Without waiting for an answer, Odysseus grabbed Mentor's arm and hauled himself to his feet.
Mentor wheeled Odysseus around, and they headed back the way they had come. They ploughed through the tangled thicket towards the edge of the slope while the boar was still making up its mind whether to charge again. Mentor half carried, half dragged Odysseus, who hobbled as best he could.
"Faster ..." Odysseus said, gasping with pain.
Behind them they could hear the boar bellowing as it started to charge again.
"I'm going as fast as I can," Mentor said through clenched teeth.
"Talking ... to ... myself," Odysseus said. "Not ... you." He took a deep breath and said in a rush, "Better leave me. Only slowing you down."
"Heroes together or not at all," Mentor told him, and just then they reached the edge of the slope.
Slipping free of Mentor's grasp, Odysseus pitched himself forward, going head over heels. Mentor slid after on his bottom, thinking that there was no hope for his tunic now.
Thorns and shards of flint tore at their clothing and flesh. Every bump and knock jarred their bodies, till Mentor began to think they would have had an easier time with the boar.
Then they landed in a heap at the bottom, fetching up against a spindly tree.
"Odysseus, are you ...?"
"Keep ... still," Odysseus said.
Mentor raised his eyes warily and saw the boar standing at the top of the slope, stamping the grass in frustration. He opened his mouth to speak.
"Remember ... poor ... eyesight," Odysseus said. "Small brain."
Mentor shut his mouth.
Time seemed to drag by as the boar shook its massive head and peered down the slope. But at last, seeing nothing and hearing nothing, it gave one last grunt and snort, and disappeared back to the bushes to finish its breakfast.
When the boar didn't return, Mentor whispered, "We need to get you back down to your grandfather's palace so your wound can be properly tended, Odysseus. But meanwhile ..." He stripped off his linen leggings and, using them as a makeshift bandage, bound up the gaping wound on Odysseus' leg.
"Thanks," Odysseus said. His normally ruddy face was blanched with pain.
"Being a hero," Mentor said, "is awfully bloody work."
"Isn't ... it ..." Odysseus said, and then, unaccountably, he grinned.
Excerpted from Odysseus in the Serpent Maze by Jane Yolen, Robert J. Harris. Copyright © 2000 Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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