At the prow of Deucalian’s Ark, Panacea stood, lips pursed, determinedly looked ahead to a world larger than the cave where she had hidden since childhood. Beside her, Thoősa kept watch for adventure: her very own story. Hylas was the only one to look back towards Crete, wondering whether, somewhere on that huge island, Heracles was even now searching for his armour-bearer. But the truth had to be faced: the world was just too big to hope master and armour-bearer would simply bump into each other.
Unless it was their Fate.
“Why don’t you ask a fortune-teller?” said Thoősa cheerfully. “An oracle might tell you where to look. Or if you’re ever going to find him.”
Hylas felt instantly better. It was a wonderful idea. Yes, he would find a soothsayer, a seer, an augurer – someone with magic on their side - and ask which road he should take through the worrying world.
There was no steering the ark. Built to survive the Flood, it was meant simply to stay afloat until some sunken patch of the world caught hold of its hull. So it had neither a tiller for steering, nor sails. They simply drifted north, bullied along by a gusting southerly wind, until they collided with mainland Boetia.
The ark lodged itself in another dental crevice of the world, leaking canaries through its ancient seams. Talos, scraped off the keel as the ark ran aground, crawled ashore with seawater draining out through his eyes, nostrils and the hinges of his elbows. The journey had slubbered his bronze and made him dull - not exactly unobtrusive, but at least he did not dazzle in the sunlight.
There was no way of knowing where they had touched land, so they simply walked on northwards, leaving only gulls and terns to take possession of Polyxo’s bare museum. They would like to have asked directions - “Can you point us the way to Delphi?” - but they only ever saw the backs of heads, as the locals saw Talos and fled in terror. Even shineless and dented, the Brass Man still inspired as much terror as grassfires, wolves or a mob of Argonauts.
The woman sitting at the roadside, though, made no effort to run. She simply looked at them blankly out of red-rimmed eyes. Either she was very short-sighted or she was beyond fear.
Thoősa told Hylas: “My mother said: if you ever need help, ask a woman.”
Hylas was astonished: the Argonauts had said the exact opposite. Sorceresses wanted to enchant you. Amazons were unnatural. Erinyes sent you mad. And look at the Sirens! The Lamia ate children. The Sphinx ate – well - anybody. Gorgons turned you to stone. The Succubae… “Well I can’t remember what the Succubae do to you, but women?” And having thoroughly scared himself, Hylas stopped at a nervous distance from the woman crouched at the roadside. “She smells funny,” he threw in for good measure, and earned a look of contempt from Thoősa.
Panacea meanwhile, seeing the woman’s obvious distress, simply set down her wallet of herbs on the ground and began to roll together an assortment of leaves. Years of cave-dwelling had taught her how to strike a spark between flints, so she succeeded in lighting a little pile of dry grass and, in turn, the rolled-up leaves. “Suck in the smoke,” she said, raising it to the woman’s lips.
The woman, who seemed to have a strong aversion to smoke – snatched her head away – hit out at Panacea – tried to crawl away. Then, despite herself, she caught a whiff of the herbs’ perfume. “There are no words!” she said, sipping at the air, coughing a little. “Your smoke has no words in it.”
“Just natural medicines.”
When, soon after, the cramps in her legs eased and the stiffness in her face relaxed, the woman inhaled deeply, greedily on the rolled leaves – even plucked stray rings of smoke out of the air and crammed them into her mouth. The stony bleakness left her bruised eyes and she looked at them directly for the first time. “It comes, then,” she said to herself. “A boy. A girl. A monster.”
“Do you live near here?” Panacea asked. “May we help you get home?”
The woman gave a fractured grin and a giggle. “No. I am a fugitive.”
“Why? Who’s chasing you?”
“Oh you know…” She burped. “The Future.”
Recovering both his nerve and his curiosity, Hylas asked his usual relentless question. “I’m looking for someone. Big man. Well, not that tall but… One of the Heroes…” he said. “Have you seen any Heroes come this way? You’d know him if you saw him.”
The woman looked around her pointedly at the empty countryside – an unpromising waste of grass and myrtle bushes. “Does this look like a land fit for Heroes, boy?”
Thoősa nudged him impatiently with her elbow: there are times and places, said the nudge. But Hylas ploughed proudly on. “He’s my master, you see… Heracles the Hero.”
He might as well have hit the woman with an octopus.
“Oh cascara! cascara! That name! How many more times? Let me eat a shipload of nails before I have to puke up that name again!” and she made a titanic effort to pull herself to her feet, falling back with a sob.
Hylas had no idea who or what cascara was but sensed it was not a compliment. Perhaps she had misunderstood him; perhaps ‘Heracles’ meant something bad in the regional dialect. But he had no time to explain himself better before another traveller came along the road towards them, on foot. The light was failing, so no one noticed how the limp grass twitched upright, a rabbit warren subsided, a sapling lost its footing and keeled over. Not an earthquake – too faint to be an earthquake. A trick of the failing light more probably.
The man approaching was small and unremarkable in every way – entirely grey, from his hair to his bare dusty feet. An outcrop of boulders rolled over. Somewhere a wild pig squealed.