Standing on a lonely cove on the coast of Crete, standing alongside the massive, motionless metal form stretched out along the beach, Hylas remembered his first encounter with The Guardian.
The crew of the Argos had slogged to the top of a cliff and seen the sun flaring off something distant and unbearably bright. A mannequin. A metal mannequin. It was moving at full tilt: The Guardian of Crete making its daily patrol.
From a distance, they could none of them judge its size. Only as it came closer – kept coming closer, getting bigger all the while - did they start to realise that the Brass Man was not built to human scale.
Talos the Guardian was twice the height of a cedar tree. Forged entirely from brass, its torso was a carapace of overlapping sheet metal. Hinges at elbow and shoulder let the arms swing like flails, and metal coils at knee and ankle put a bounding spring into its run.
Heracles had leapt to the fore, of course, ducking and somersaulting into the giant’s path so as to take its legs from under it. But though Talos went sprawling, and the Argonauts fell on it in battle frenzy, their swords could do nothing to brass limbs. Arrows glanced off face and flank, or lodged in the metal shavings that roughed its skull. The brass hands grabbed, scooped and lobbed Argonauts to right and left. At a blow from Heracles’ club, the twin holes bored into its face did not bleed, only trickled easing-oil down the shining blank where the mouth should have been. How can you wrestle a giant with slip-shiny polished skin? Or force a machine to submit, when it feels no pain?
Talos had been built to guard Crete from strangers coming ashore anywhere but a harbour. Keeping out ne’er-do-wells and pirates. So, coming upon the Argonauts as they clambered ashore, Talos had turned on them a mechanical violence. It was not anger, but a made-to-measure, dutiful savagery: Swoop, Grip, Throw, Kick, Pound, Trample. When Heracles leapt at Talos from high ground, Talos simply took Heracles in its unbreakable brass embrace and hugged him even closer to its no-heart. The brass was hot from the noonday sun - hotter than sunshine could account for – and the arms had a vice-like strength…
If Poeas the Argonaut had not fired yet another arrow – if the arrow had not sliced downwards, by sheer fluke, and struck the giant’s heel, Heracles might have been crushed. But the arrow dislodged a screw – one tiny screw – and the liquor that pumped around Talos’ body in place of blood began to leak out in spurts. The brass arms slackened – only a fraction, but enough for Heracles to writhe free and drop back down to the ground. The Brass Man lifted that same, holed foot to stamp on the Hero but, seeing the clear liquid dripping from its heel, seemed to react as some do to the sight of blood. It swayed. It stepped backwards and trod in the puddle of its own liquor, slipped and overbalanced – clean over the edge of the cliff.
The noise of that fall on to shingle and rocks was loud as a thunder clap. But at once the giant got up and began to climb - implacable, unstoppable - back up the cliff face, kicking toeholds for itself out of the hard rock. As the Argonauts stood transfixed, a huge golden hand reached over the cliff top and patted the ground, groping with dextrous, articulated fingers. It was feeling for the missing screw.
It was Hylas who spotted the screw. To the noise of brass feet kicking foot-holds higher and higher in the cliff, the metal face came in sight and golden fingers crawled like a giant spider towards the screw, it was Hylas who darted forward and snatched it up.
“I threw it,” said Hylas, remembering. “Over the edge of the cliff.”
It caught the light while it was in the air, but disappeared the moment it landed amid the million shells and sea-polished pebbles of the beach.
As the clear liquid trickled out of its heel, out of its veins, the brass giant lost strength, balance, vigour. It never completed its climb up the cliff, but slithered back down to lie in the shingle, to die face-down in the shingle. By the time the Argonauts sailed away, Talos was scrap metal, the sea licking experimentally at its face, caking its cheeks with salt.
Now, one month on, Polyxo the merchant strode from end to end of the fallen giant, measuring its height in paces. He tried to lift the hand which lay palm-upwards in a rock pool, tried to unscrew it, but it was almost the size of his own body. He had to content himself with taking one finger, unscrewing it at the knuckle. While he did so, he grinned open-mouthed in sheer delight. Polyxo was a collector of all things strange and rare, and the index finger of Talos the Brass Giant was a fine prize for his collection.
It delighted him, too, that Hylas had been telling the truth all along – that he really was the armour-bearer of Heracles the Hero. “Trust me, boy,” he said. “I have contacts all over the island. If your master is here, we shall find him in no time. Come to my mansion while you wait. You think this item was big?” he said, kicking the brass carcase disdainfully. “Wait till you see my palace.”
Polyxo was not a young man, but he splashed into the surf and climbed aboard the empty sailing boat with the energy of a child, the weighty brass finger pulling his robe out of shape. He sat down at the oars himself this time, Xyno being still ashore somewhere… Hylas. too, clambered in as fast as he was able – partly to get away from Talos and his memories of that terrifying battle, partly because Polyxo had promised to help him find Heracles.
Thoősa was slower off the mark. While she crouched, knees round her ears, trying to peer in at the hollow lidless eyes of the giant, she kept thinking there were gulls overhead, because she could hear mewing. But there were no birds. Anyway, the sound was more sobbing-sad than a seagull. It seemed to be coming from a cave beneath the cliff… With a start, she realised the Polyxo had unreefed the boat’s little sail. “Hey! Wait for me!”
Hylas was also slow to realise what was happening. “Wait for Thoősa!”
“Tchuh. Girls,” said Polyxo heaving on the oars. “You don’t waste your time on them, do you boy? Myself, I won’t have them in the house. A statue or two of the female variety, but the real thing? Nah. Now a dryad…” The little vessel wallowed over the surf and steadied in deep water.
“But we can’t leave Thoősa!” said Hylas kneeling up in the stern.
“…or a neriad – that I might pay out for. Or a lamia…” Polyxo rowed like an amateur, turning his face up to the sky on every back stroke, talking on and on, in his flat Cretan accent, about the relative value of a wood nymph over a mermaid, a statue of Apollo over a statue of Artemis. Before Hylas knew it, he was too far out to swim ashore. “Let’s get that search underway for your master. Time’s wasting. He’ll be missing a boy like you,” said Polyxo, and stole away Hylas’ last scrap of resolve.
With Xyno’s help (he told himself) Thoősa would easily find her way back to the harbour. He would help her find a ship back to Mysia, wouldn’t he? She would even have a story to take home with her, of brass giants and dead Sirens.