Released from his prison cell, the long-suffering priest, Albaris also scoured the mansion for his one and only possession: a golden arrow. “There be small merit in owning things,” he explained, “yet it was a gift from a friend, and most commodious for getting about.” So saying, he slid the arrow between his skinny legs and rose gently into the air with a slight wince.
Hylas and Thoősa stood open-mouthed with wonder. Panacea asked, “Is it very uncomfortable?”
Abaris adjusted his seat astride the arrow and smiled bravely. “What is a little pain, lady?”
Presumably, the Brass Man felt no pain at all from the various dents in his metalwork, but with so little ichor in his pipes, he lacked the energy to run – even to try. Panacea , the doctor’s daughter, insisted the ichor would replenish itself, as human blood replenished itself after a wound. “Better, in fact. It’s god-blood. You don’t see the O’s getting pale and tired in their old age, do you? More’s the pity.” There was bitterness whenever she spoke of the Olympians - especially Zeus who had killed her father. But there was fear, too. “The O’s will be angry if they see Talos,” she said, and the whites of her eyes flashed fright.
She was right to be afraid: the Brass Man had been made for a purpose; if he stopped doing his duty, how long before the gods looked down from Heaven and noticed?
“So? He can go back and do it soon,” said Hylas. He understood all about duty and the feeling of lonely uselessness that came of not doing it. “He can go back to being Guardian when he’s better.”
“No! Oh the poor thing! I was an awful fate! No! …And suppose the O’s realise what I did!” Panacea rummaged in her wallet for valerian and crammed the leaves into her mouth. It made her speech indistinct and her spit slightly green, and her eyes raked the sky for sign of thunderclouds, thunderbolts, judgement. “They probably watched Talos fight with the Argonauts! The gods love a good fight! They probably know Talos died! If they see him alive again, they’ll know that someone… It will be just like Orion all over again! I have to hide! And Talos too!”
Hylas was finding it hard to fret about the massive automaton; would not have been at all sorry to see the bright, shiny back of it. He made the mistake of saying so.
“Three times a day he had to run round this island!” said Thoősa indignantly. “And if he met anyone, it was only to kill them. What kind of life is that?” (She had learned this from Panacea, of course, not Talos himself, who had no mouth to tell his own story.)
Was Talos unhappy? For all Hylas knew, the Brass Man might be grinning if only he had a mouth for doing it.
“We need somewhere to hide,” insisted Panacea.
“Go ye up, then, unto my land!” the priest called down as he performed swallow dives high above their heads. “Come ye all to Hyperboria, where reigneth perfect happiness. Do! Do!” With that, Abaris shot away at the speed of a huntsman’s arrow. Quite how they were supposed to follow him was not clear. Hylas would have liked to call him back: the word ‘Hyperboria’ jabbed infuriatingly at the back of his mind. He knew it, but could not say why, had not heard it since he was tiny. “My father used to say…” But his memory turned into a blind alley and could go no further. “My master,” he said instead, “that’s who we have to find. Heracles will know what to do about the… Brass Thing,” and he waved a hand in the direction of Talos. Crawling along on hands and knees, the automaton looked for all the world like a vast engine of war. Heracles would know what to do about such a machine; how to put it out of action for good and always.
“We must get him off Crete,” said Thoősa. “At least we have a boat now.”
Hylas snorted with laughter. A boat? The moment Talos stepped aboard, his weight would sink any boat to the ocean bed.
But Thoősa did not mean the little sailing boat. She had something much bigger in mind. She meant Deucalion’s ark.
“Deucalion’s father warned him that Zeus was planning to wipe out the world,” said Thoősa fingers spread, eyes wide, her eyebrows raised almost to her curly hairline. “So he built a ship and took all kinds of every animal on board – oh, and his wife, of course. And he rode it out!”
“Rode out what?” said Hylas.
“The Great Flood, of course! Don’t you know anything?”
Hylas sighed and wished he had not always been cooking Heracles’ dinner when the Argonauts were doing storytelling.
“Oh yes! Very good! Now all we have to do is launch it,” said Panacea with a shrill laugh bordering on hysteria. “And maybe if Zeus sees what I’ve done He’ll send another Flood to drown us!”
Thoősa leapt on this idea like a frog into a pond. “Yes! A surge of water! That’s what we need. A high tide might be enough, if we could just cut these ropes.” She had found the ark’s mooring tethers. To hold the massive ship upright and stop it being washed out to sea by winter storms, Polyxo had tethered it, with massive hawsers, to iron staples in the cliff face. Windblown sand and hanks of seaweed had buried the ropes for most of their length, but once Thoősa started digging, so too did Talos. (Some inbuilt impulse to copy human behaviour, she supposed.) His huge hands had soon laid bare four hemp tethers as thick as tree trunks.
“Now all we have to do is cut them,” said Panacea despairingly.
The mermaids and sea nymphs, whom Talos had plucked from their prison fishtanks and thrown back out to sea, regrouped a little way offshore. Their inexpressive faces showed nothing (not even their joy in Hylas’ beauty, which as what had really fetched them back). They did not wave when Thoősa waved to them. They did not even smile at the strange contortions of the Brass Man, who was busy worming his way underneath the rope tethers.
“What is he doing?” said Hylas.
Soon, the giant looked as if he had been lashed to the ground by the massive hawsers; they were stretched taut across his metal chest. More strangely still, he had begun to sing.
He did not sing like Orpheus, having no mouth. He sang in the way a sword does in the forge: a strange, unearthly soughing, with sharp clicks as the flues of his body heated up. First the gobbet of larva inside him turned his abdomen and chest red hot, then white hot, and one by one, strand by strand, the ropes charred, unwound, sprang apart, burning and fizzing and stinking like lit fuses. Polyxo’s mansion settled itself with a groan of timbers, slumping over to one side.
“Will you help?” Without even kicking off her sandals, without lifting her skirts, Panacea ran into the shallows, waded up to her waist and deeper, waving her arms over her head. “Will you help us? Send a wave! A tide! A swell! A neap! Just set us afloat! Please!”
The mermaids looked back out of their fishy eyes and blinked their fishy inner lids – the ones that closed side-to-centre. Their faces said nothing. Their mouths were as expressive as cod.
“Tell King Poseidon that… that…. that Athena is planting olive trees there – back there! Tell him she’s planting the loveliest garden over yonder!” A wave nudged Panacea off her feet. When she resurfaced, the mermaids were gone, as if they had never been: a trick of the light.
Hylas and Thoősa were staring in bewilderment. “The goddess Athena? Why…?”
“Because they hate each other, that’s why,” Panacea snapped, tugging at her wet, tangled hair with furious fingers, shuddering with cold. “Don’t you know anything? The Olympian Family all hate each other. Poseidon hates Athena. Hera hates Zeus, Hephaestus hates Ares….Petty feuds. Jealousy. Plots. Squabbles. Revenges. You’ll see! You wait. Poseidon won’t let a chance pass to spoil things for Athena.”
Hylas thought the doctor’s daughter was feverish, raving, but sat down anyway, on the beach and waited – for Talos to cool and for Panacea to get warm again: what else was there to do? He was nervous of them both now. Panacea would talk so to herself (as people do who have lived too long alone in a cave). And Talos… well, having watched him deliberately burn through the hawsers using his own body heat, Hylas realised that Talos was no mere machine, but a reasoning beast.
Seeing yet again that patch of soot on Talos’ chest, Hylas suddenly guessed what had become of Polyxo the Collector, and went off to be sick among the agapanthus flowers.
The freed mermaids and saltwater nymphs, reunited with their friends and loved ones, prattled for days, never pausing for breath, talking over each other: about prison food and being held captive for months without so much as a comb... Above all they talked of the beautiful, white-smiled, golden-haired darling of a boy who had shared their prison and won their hearts.
Only after a week did they remember to tell their father King Poseidon, god of the sea, that his niece Athena was planting a garden over yonder, on the coast of Crete.
Interest lit the sea god’s eyes for the first time, and turned them a darker shade of blue. The irritable crease between his eyes melted away. He summoned his Commander of flotsam and jetsam.
Hylas and Thoősa were crawling around the hull of the ark, looking for rot and storm damage that might let in water if ever they got afloat. Suddenly, Talos began to swing his arms; a windmilling that caught the air in his curled fingers and made a loud whistling alarum. Towards them, over the sea, was coming a fold of ocean as high as the ark itself. It was laden with litter – wreckage, dead krill, blubber, human sewage, the ink of squid, and rotting sea-cucumbers.
With a scream, Panacea dragged the others out by their feet from under the hull. They climbed the lengths of charred rope she had strung from the summit of the ark.
The tidal wave overwhelmed both ark and cliff, spewing its parcel of filth over several acres of inland Crete. The goddess Athena (who was nowhere near at the time) never even knew of the insult Poseidon had spat at her. Hylas, Panacea and Thoősa, though, clinging on for their lives, eyes and mouths tight shut, gave silent thanks to the Sea God, and waited for the backwash to carry Polyxo’s wooden mansion out to sea and away.
It was hard to gauge Talos’ reaction. Clinging to the keel of the ark, his great weight acting as ballast, keeping it from overturning, his only comment was a stream of bubbles from either eye.
Meanwhile, down in the bilges, Xyno - that scratcher of itches, Polyo’s dogged fixer and fetcher - lay low. So easily overlooked. So readily forgotten. That was the way he liked it. That way, people didn’t trouble to look behind them and wonder where he had got to. If he was dogging footsteps, he made sure no one knew it.
Xyno chewed on a mummified Egyptian cat he had found among the exhibits. Time to find new employment: Polyxo would not be needing his services again, but Xyno was not unduly anxious: the world is full of itches waiting to be scratched.