Legendary creatures from Greek myth, of course! So with issue 10, Arak and Valda make a side trip to Mount Olympus. And there are some surprises in store for both of them…
We open on very human terrain, in medias res. Arak and Valda, on horseback, are being ambushed by Byzantine soldiers.
Last issue, we left them adrift at sea after the Pompeian undead vengefully sank the merchant ship they were hitching a ride on. Between the two issues, we’ve skipped how they got to land, procured new mounts and (if we’re going to be nitpicky) all of their weapons and gear. Later in the issue, we’ll get a one-line flashback-thought from Arak about having purchased the horses from a Grecian farmer — but where did they get the money? Valda even still has the scrolls bearing endorsements and writs of passage from Carolus Magnus and the Pope — though given what will happen shortly, those may as well have just been lost at sea.
Anyway, while Arak and Valda are trying to be diplomatic, some of the mounted soldiers charge down the hill toward them, weapons drawn. One is nocking an arrow even as he rides, ignoring his commander’s warning cry: “Hold, archer! Do not go near them! They are dangerous!” A shame such skill as both horseman and archer is wasted, a couple panels later, on Valda’s blade. It’s on.
While the Frankish knight Valda (don’t call her a woman!) is dealing with another pair of soldiers, Arak rides to meet the onslaught of the commander, even while marveling that the commander of the armed horsemen would ride in separately to join the fray. Yet our narrator gives us this to chew on: “Still, in his haste, Arak has left one question unasked! Would a leader of men do such a thing as enter the fray unless he were either mad — or had left a second skilled archer perched atop the peak, to graze his enemy’s skull!” Pick B! Pick B! Oh well, then, it turns out to be the second option.
Here’s another nitpick, okay? Could an arrow that grazed only enough to leave a minor cut also strike with such force that it knocks Arak off his horse and renders him unconscious? Well, that’s what happens. [In fairness to Thomas, whose writing and plotting in this issue seems at times a bit less thought out or sloppier than usual, we did learn in the letters page of a recent issue that he’d just returned from a honeymoon in France.]
Arak slowly returns to consciousness to behold this: “And as Arak gazes for the first time into the one good eye of the scarred visage he sees on waking, he knows that he has looked into the very face of evil. Live to be a thousand, he’ll never see it so close up again.”
It is the commander of the horsemen, Captain Brutius, who has a ghastly red scar down the left side of his face, bisecting his socket, in which is set a solid-white crystal eye.
Since I’m being nitpicky today, let me ask this: live to be a thousand, he’ll never stare into such a face of evil? Arak routinely tussles with demons and devils (literal ones), vampires, and lich-like sorcerers. This Brutius is a brute, sure. Maybe he’s the most wicked, black-hearted man in all Byzantium. But I don’t know, the hyperbole there might be a tad thick, maybe.
Arak and Valda are tied to a tree, and Brutius explains he has only spared them because he “was curious about the very idea of a warrior woman . . . ” (Doesn’t really explain why Arak’s still alive. I mean Brutius also mentions his curiosity about why Valda would travel with a “half-naked barbarian with skin as red as Satan’s own,” but that would have also been a question Valda could have answered.) Anyway, it’s good that he spared Arak, because we still have 40 issues to go.
That inevitable comparison of Arak’s skin to Satan does draw a good comeback line from our titular hero: “I don’t believe in this ‘Satan’ of yours, man of the East — but free me, and give me back a weapon, and I’ll send you to see him, so that you can compare our colors for yourself!” Incidentally, Arak has encountered devils and demons in the previous weeks; wouldn’t he at least believe Satan could hypothetically be another individual spirit of that ilk? (I am being too nitpicky today, aren’t I.)
Anyway, a long exchange ensues, which I will not recount in detail. It does two things: 1) Establishes that Brutius is a real rhymes-with-quick. This is one of the fellows who puts rebellious Slavs to the sword for not paying their taxes and/or for not converting to Christianity, all in the name of Irene, Empress of Byzantium, but really just as pretense for the violence he would perpetrate anyway. 2) Gives us some flashbacks as Valda recounts their quest to rescue Malagigi and their recent service to Pope Hadrian, the Bishop of Rome. In the latter flashback, we do get an interesting detail about why Josephus, the Wandering Jew, did not accompany them further: “He had parted from them at the first crossroads, for the ancient curse laid upon him forbids him ever to travel long with companions. Thus has it been, he says, for nigh eight centuries already…and thus it shall be, till the day of Christ’s return to this vale of tears.”
This does cleverly set up a particularly wicked response from Brutius. He declares that since Valda’s already told him the whole story, he does not need to read the scrolls they carry, and promptly rips them to shreds.
When Valda calls Brutius a vermin and berates him for destroying the messages from Carolus Magnus and the Pope, he slaps her, which prompts Arak to make a remark about being a coward to strike a woman.
This prompts the following response from Valda: “I keep telling you, Arak — forget that I’m a woman! I have! I’m a knight — full much as ever my mother Bradamante was, or brave Roland himself!” So apparently it wasn’t just the guest scripter of a couple issues back who inserted this notion of Valda having to deny her womanhood to embrace her knighthood. The fact that Bradamante had a daughter while still being a warrior suggests that she was able to accommodate both, but it can be a challenge — just ask any woman who is juggling having a career with being a mom.
In a breath of fresh air, Brutius is the first villain in a while who does not want to rape Valda, but merely to kill her, responding to her impassioned aside to Arak by interjecting, “Then you’ll rejoice to know — that my knife is no respecter of sex, but wants only to know your Slav treasons.”
This is all cut short by “a shrill, reedy sound” — eerie music that first frightens the horses, and then all people present. Brutius and his men take to their steeds and ride off; Arak and Valda would have done the same, but for still being tied to a tree. Then a shadowy figure sneaks up and cuts through their bonds, just enough so that Arak can break free. Before they can thank their mysterious benefactor, he is bounding away up the mountain.
They decide to bed down for the night; Valda lays out her sword between them, as she always does in case anyone starts feeling frisky in the throes of a night dream. She may have taken one of them high-school virginity pledges.
This time, Arak replies ambiguously, “Swords are flat…easy to roll over, if one wished to. Sleep well, Iron Maiden.” In Arak’s defense, since that can be read two ways — as a threat, or as an invitation: contextually, it is almost certainly the latter. He sorely wishes Valda would act on their obvious mutual attraction, but she will have to make the first move. This barbarian is a gentleman, folks, at least for the times.
Later, Valda is awoken by the piping again, only this time it engenders not fear but intense curiosity. This is almost an exact parallel to their encounter weeks before with seductive Carthaginian vampires in the Alps, which does occur to Valda as she goes off by herself to seek the source of the sound. She reassures herself: “Still, it is such a lovely song which these pipes play. What possible harm can there be in such an exquisite, delicate, sensuous sound? What…possible…harm?” That’s a rhetorical question, right?
Flip the page for a wonderful image of a satyr playing the pipes and frolicking, bursting right out of the panels. He has entranced the Iron Maiden, overcome the sword with music… “And she sheds her knighthood as easily as her armor..sheds everything, in fact…but her womanhood.”
Ever since Valda showed up back in issue 5, people and supernatural beings have been trying to get her naked. All it took was a good tune. Prince could have told them that. (I mean the contemporary musician Prince, not some prince from the middle ages.)
Now we cut to another scene (this comic is still approved by the Comics Code Authority, after all): Brutius and his men searching for the source of the fear-inspiring music that sent them running like church ladies from a Metallica concert. When his men inquire as to what exactly they are looking for, Brutius explains (I will quote him at length, because it is a nice set-up for what we are dealing with here):
“You are not Greek-born as I am, Thiodon. It’s not merely the suppression of a half-hearted Slavic revolt to which the Empress has pledged me. . . . I think — no, I’ll not speak yet, lest you think it is one madman who leads you in pursuit of another. But when you behold the one I sense we follow, then you will believe. Aye, and so shall all of Byzantium, when I drag the very devil kicking and screaming through her streets, and about the course of the mob-packed Hippodrome!”
Now we cut back to Arak, blissfully unaware that a mythical half-human/half-goat hybrid has just cut in on his girl. He awakes to hoofbeats, and is amazed to see a half-human/half-horse hybrid with a Mohawk haircut and a bow and quiver of arrows. The grinning centaur begins firing off shots, intentionally missing but herding Arak up the mountainside.
After a bit of this, Arak finds an opportunity to leap atop the centaur’s back and get the human half locked in a full nelson. He demands that the creature speak, and is surprised when the creature’s strange voice replies in his own Viking tongue.
The centaur introduces himself as Khiron, “last of the beings called centaurs — and I am not even half human, as you mean the word.” [I, too, stand corrected.] He then proposes that instead of wasting all night wrangling on the mountainside, that Arak simply follow him “over yonder ridge” to see what Khiron wanted to show him all along. “You’ll see that we much to talk about, and little to fight over.”
Turn page…Whopper reveal in the penultimate three-quarter-page panel: At the very peak of Mount Olympus three heads are carved. Two of the Mount-Rushmore-sized visages look like Greek gods (Zeus and Neptune, maybe?), but the third is the spitting image of Arak.
“Well, boy?” Khiron asks, “Do you agree now that we have things to discuss?”
“That…I do, Khiron,” Arak says, “Above all else…that I most surely do…!”
2 (satyr; centaur)
Next issue: Valda is satyrized