All kinds of god-litter strewed the countryside they passed through. There were fragments of thunderbolts, which the cyclopses (who had made them originally) collected up, arguing about which of them had made this one or that, and the quality of the workmanship. There were pieces of armour and weaponry dropped from heaven in the path of heroes who had either failed to find them or were still on their way. There were crashed chariots. There were the rotting carcases of stags hunted for sport by those who ate no venison. And there were spent arrows that had missed their mark.
The horse Xanthus trod on an arrowhead in the dark, and it embedded itself in the soft frog of his hoof. He made no whinny of pain, and it was not until Panacea saw him limping that she checked his feet and gently removed the barb.
“Why did you not say?” she chided him, cleaning the wound.
Xanthus looked back at her so intently that she saw herself reflected in the big blue-brown globes of his magnificent eyes.
“My friend cannot speak,“ said his stable-mate Balius. “The Furies struck him dumb for warning his rider of danger ahead. They were under orders. From the O’s.”
He said all this through a mouthful of raw venison, a sight so unnatural that Panacea could not help saying it was an unhealthy diet for a horse.
“Oh I was vegetarian once,” said Balius, “but the O’s drove me mad. I don’t believe they had nutrition in mind. They just wanted me to eat my owner. Teach him a lesson.” Balius licked his hairy, horsey lips.
“Great teachers, the O’s,” said Pegasus bitterly. “We learned. Oh how we learned.”
Poor limping Xanthus pressed his muzzle into Panacea’s throat, and she was afraid he might bite it through. But the horse simply blew hot, damp affection into the crook of her jaw and gazed at her with purple-brown adoration.
Xanthus had been struck dumb all over again, this time by Love, thanks to the arrowhead. Xyno easily persuaded Panacea to part with it. He was squirreling together a fine assortment of god-litter, planning to sell it when he found customers with a higher regard for the gods.
Ladon the dragon, mincing by, saw the arrowhead change hands and observed, “You won’t get much of a price for that. I travel the world and I’ve seen them all over. That’s one of Eros’s. Nuisance of a child. It’s not so much that he’s a hooligan, loosing off love darts every hour of the day: he’s just such a terrible shot.”
Doggy Xyno, despite being an outsider (and having some deeply unpleasant habits) was tolerated to tag along. After all, he had helped reunite Typhon with his Good Luck Boy. There was a gleam now in his red-rimmed eye; it looked like devotion to Hylas, but in truth the little fixer-and-fetcher was seeing opportunities wherever he looked. He began to walk alongside winged horse Pegasus, praising its gait, the carriage of its head, the drape of its wings. The horse was ill-at-ease having someone pressing so close to its flank. It jinxed away from Xyno’s touch and his never-ending questions.
“Can you fly now, then, noble Pegasus? Can’t you? Can you?” The horse did not answer. “Is it right Bellyfur tamed you with a golden bridle and rode you way up high as the top of Olympus?” The horse did not answer.
Thoősa, thinking perhaps that Pegasus had lost its story to the locust-eaters, offered to retell it, but the horse only shook its mane as if to dislodge flies. Or memories.
“Go on, tell Xyno,” wheedled the fixer-and-fetcher. “Tell Xyno, do you still got the memory in your head? The way to that place old Bellyfur flew you? Could you do it still? The wings, do the wings still…”
Pegasus stamped impatiently. For years the horse had lived underground, without space to spread its wings, mildew and tics infesting each feather, muscles wasting within its grimy hide. Angered by Xyno’s pestering, it cracked open its wings now in an irritable twitch of spine, phalanges and feathers. Green mould and dirty down filled the air, setting everyone nearby sneezing and coughing. But it was plain to see that Pegasus’ wings were not wasted stumps paralysed by lack of use.
With the sun on its back, the starlight on its ears, the sweet grass between its teeth once more, Pegasus had been gaining fettle day by day. As surprised as anyone by sudden whiteness in the corner of its eye, Pegasus shied and skittered. Thoősa was unseated and slithered to the ground. Instantly Xyno sprang up and took her place astride the winged horse. Still more alarmed, Pegasus arched its sway back and shed Xyno, too, who crashed to earth at Hylas’ feet. Perhaps the beauty of the stars had something to do with it, the prickly thorn flowers of silver and white trembling across the edgeless sky.
For the first time in fifty years, Pegasus took off.
Rearing up on its back legs, it simply jumped into the air, and found itself inexpertly cantering on air: doggy-paddling through darkness. The cavalcade of refugees looked up and saw a luminous patch of whiteness vying with the moon. It was such a sight that they uncoiled their own enfeebled tentacles, flexed their own biceps or swung their forge-hammers in wheeling arcs that made their shoulders crack. Hylas watched open-mouthed, envious of Pegasus, up there in the insect-speckled moonlight.
Xyno’s rasping tongue licked the back of the boy’s neck. “Now there’s the scratch for a lot of itches, sir. That nag knows. That nag knows nicely what a dry throat wants. What? Ask me what.”
“A lick of liquor, that’s what.”
Hylas gulped down his reaction. Xyno was not to know: strong drink was an unmentionable, forbidden subject. Heracles did not drink. Had never drunk. Well, only that one appalling time...
“I don’t touch liquor,” the boy said lamely.
“Quite! Quite right!” yapped Xyno turning in circles now as if in an attempt to lick the back of his own neck. “Liquor lifts you up then it drops you back down deeper’n before, dunnit? Leaves you sour. Sore head, too. Not his stuff, though. Not that one’s.” He pointed a furry glove up at Pegasus cruising the night sky, inelegant as a cow floating downriver, “Old Bellyfur, wot caught him and tamed him, flew that nag up high as the gods theirselves. Clear over Olympus they flew! Bellyfur got thrown for his pains. But not before Pegasus tippy-tapped into the secret, eh? Clipped the mountain with a hoof, dinnee? Clipped the tip off Olympus, dinnee? Drippetty-drip, out it came.” Xyno spat to illustrate how shining liquor had spurted from the peak of Olympus the day Pegasus caught it an accidental blow with one hoof. “ ’Magine!” panted Xyno, licking his spittle back up off Hylas’ shoulder. “That nag knows the exact place that spring sprung up. Could take Xyno right there. Right to the source of the sauce. Wassit taste like, y’think? Wassit it worth on the open market? Drops of the heavenly stuff. Hippocrene. Delectibble dribbling hippocrene. Drink of the Dogs!”
“Gods,” said Hylas reflexly.
“Same difference,” said Xyno.
But the fixer’s ambition to find and market the drink of the gods got no farther that night. Winged Pegasus, riding the night winds, high above the earth’s curve, caught the scent of salt. The horse landed with the news that the horizon was silver with moonlight: they were approaching the sea. Its ears were pricked, its tail was plumed. It had no time for Xyno’s jabbered questions - “Take me there, yes? Take me where you took old Bellyfur?” “Bellerophon?” chirruped the Echidna creeping up behind Xyno in the dark like a saltwater crocodile and picking him up by one leg before dropping him on his head.
“You talking Bellerophon, dearie? He talking Bellerophon, Peggy dear?”
“I flew, Ma,” said the winged horse.
“Saw you, my sorrow’n’joy,” said the Echidna and gave the horse a pat. “Just like that day Bellerophon rode you to where my little girl was. My Chimera. Rode you up high, so he could drop lead in at her mouth. It ran down molten into her insides and killed her dead. Isn’t that right, Peggy?”
“He did, Ma.”
“Peggy here helped him do it.”
“Oh now Ma, I was only the horse…”
“So we don’t care for talk of Bellerophon hereabouts,” said the Echidna, and with a sharp twitch of her scaly lower half, she knocked Xyno a long way into the darkness, like a ball batted into the long grass.