As Nessus’ ruminations were concluding Heracles, Deianeira and their son caught sight of the river through the willow trees and high bulrushes. Even in mid-Mounychion the river was flowing briskly, verdant shoots on the trailing willow branches dangling in the chilly water. A soothing gurgling came from the river as it flowed by briskly. A kingfisher dove into the waters emerging with a young stickleback.
“According to that shepherd the ferry should be somewhere nearby,” Heracles said, trying to sound less dispassionate. Amidst the waving bulrushes he caught sight of the jetty on the far side of the river. “Yes,” he continued almost brightly. “There’s the eastern end of the crossing, almost opposite us. It must be somewhere nearby.” Heracles wandered towards the river looking for the ferry or its guardian amid the tall bulrushes. “Ho! Ferryman!” he cried. “We seek safe passage, if you will.”
“Willingly,” called Nessus with cold relish. “Down here.”
Heracles froze with vague recognition, barring the way for his young bride. “I know that voice,” he muttered to himself. “Show yourself,” he bellowed abruptly. “Quickly.” Nessus clambered exultantly from the boat onto the jetty, his hooves clattering on the boards. Though he tried to hide it he was trembling with nervous anticipation. “You!” Heracles growled.
“We are leaving,” Heracles snarled at Deianeira, turning her about bodily.
“I wouldn’t be so hasty, mighty hero,” Nessus sneered. “You’ve journeyed up-river for some distance from Calydon. When did you last pass a bridge or ferry station? And you will travel at least as far again, a considerable distance northwards. Do you really want to drag your bride and young son that far into the wilds? I don’t think so.” Nessus stared at Heracles triumphantly, enjoying the conflict within him. It had been some days since they last passed any sign of civilisation other than a solitary shepherd’s hut, many more since they had seen a ferry. He was reluctant to go back down-stream, especially as the weather, particularly hot for this time of year, showed little sign of breaking. But perhaps the beast lied about the prospects further up-stream. He vacillated, glancing at Deianeira for encouragement, but his wife refused to meet his gaze, staring sullenly across the river. He held his eyes upon her deliberately, but the only response was a hoarse, smug laugh from Nessus. “What will it be? The fare doubles in a minute. What will it be?”
Heracles growled in frustration, both at the centaur and his wife. “So be it.” He hurled a few coins into the bottom of the skiff. “Get in,” he demanded of his wife. Deianeira obeyed, walking past her husband and down the jetty without acknowledgement, placing a hand on the centaur’s rump to steady herself. Nessus ran his fingers down her forearm and provocatively placed his hand over hers, licking his lips as he looked directly at Heracles to enjoy his reaction. Heracles gritted his teeth and tossed two heavy bags forcefully at the centaur. Nessus braced himself as casually as possible. With a lascivious grin he caught the bags and dropped them at Deianeira’s feet. He hastily clambered down into the ferry with the towrope and snatched up the punt pole. Heracles strode down the jetty towards them. But Nessus snapped with triumphant exultation, “Not enough room,” and heaved the ferry off into the river.
For a moment Heracles considered leaping aboard. But his weight, the force of the jump, the already laden boat: surely it would capsize. He considered diving into the river. But for all his strength, he was not a competent swimmer. The river was fast-flowing and looked ominous. He shuddered at a distant memory of falling into such a river. Besides, the punt could be manoeuvred more swiftly. Even if, as he was certain, Nessus was not the usual ferryman, surely he would be outmatched. Heracles roared in helpless frustration. Nessus mocked him with a cold, whinnying laugh. Deianeira looked down-river impassively. Her husband was proven a feeble, cowardly failure yet again.
“You had better come back,” Heracles threatened emptily.
“Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll make you beg me to come back. What do you say?”
“You always were a barbarous beast, Nessus. I should have killed you eighteen years ago on Mount Pholoë when I had the chance.”
“Yes, you should. But you didn’t. You hesitated. And what happened to Cheiron is your fault and yours alone.” Nessus relished for a few moments the expression of guilt that passed across Heracles’ eyes at the mention of Cheiron. “For the agonised deaths of my screaming brothers, for your slaughter of Eurytus especially, for all of them, it’s time for you to pay the price.” By this time Nessus had directed the ferry to the far jetty and dragged a now terrified Deianeira from the skiff. She had realised that Nessus intended to punish Heracles by some outrage upon his family. She had comprehended that Nessus meant to punish Heracles by some outrage upon his family. She clung desperately to her son, Heracles’ son. She clawed at Nessus’ shaggy chest with her free hand, screaming down curses on the beast who held her. But Nessus merely laughed, licking his lips lasciviously as he stared at Heracles. He snarled at the woman, spittle flying across her face. Deianeira scratched his cheek, drawing blood. Nessus spat at her. He punched her face forcefully. As she fell he grabbed her wrist. Roughly he tore Hyllus from her grasp and hurled the screaming babe into the undergrowth. Before she could recover he ripped her dress to the waist. Deianeira was caught between vainly attempting to preserve her modesty and fighting off the beast. Nessus tore at her dress again and it fell in shreds in the grass. He entwined his fingers in her hair, forcing her to her knees and bending her over. He straddled the whimpering, pleading, snivelling bitch and stared triumphantly at its master, helpless on the other shore, staring…straight down the line of sight of an arrow. But Nessus betrayed no fear. Nessus betrayed no surprise. Nessus betrayed nothing but triumphal exultation. Hatred was etched deep in every wrinkle across his aged face. “Do your worst, Heracles. Deal your death. DO IT!”
Copyright Paul S. Withers © 2010