The Heraklophilia Club meetings were held in a temple ruin built long ago in honour of some minor god whose name had disappeared along with the roof. Whatever statue had once stood by the shrine, there was nothing left now but a carved pair of feet in winged sandals. In front of them stood a brand new, larger-than-life sculpture of Heracles: it looked as if Heracles had stepped out of the winged sandals because they pinched. Hylas did not recognise much of his master in the statue: the sculptor had clearly never seen the real Heracles. But he recognised the Heraklophiles seated now on the fallen columns of the temple. He had seen people like them before, during his days as the great man’s armour-bearer.
henever Heracles arrived on the outskirts of a town, he would quickly gather a whispering, excited crowd. “Is it him? It is, isn’t it?” More would join in: mothers with babes-in-arms, pointing out to them the famous Hero. Old men nodded sagely, as if such things had often happened when they were young. Women would stare, spellbound, singers muster their songs of welcome. But the true Heraklophiles – the ones who clung on, hung on - were still there three days later, still walking at Heracles’ heels, asking foolish questions. Their jaws were locked into eager smiles, their eyes wasted no time on blinking. Here was their idol. Here was the person they had pictured a thousand times in their imaginations. Here was the man they could have been if they had not been accidentally born someone else. It was the happiest day of their lives.
Xyno the Fixer had tracked down the local Heraklophilia Club and suggested bringing along to their monthly meeting Hylas armour-bearer to the Great Man Himself. An appearance fee was mentioned; no one had quibbled. They did not like the odorous, moulting Xyno or the way he pressed up against them and left hairs on their clothing. They did not trust him. But he promised them Hylas, armour bearer to the Great Man Himself. The wretch was probably lying, but they could not risk turning him down, just in case he was telling the truth. The Club did not allow female members, but a few were there that night. Star-struck girls (some with their mothers) said they had come to serve the refreshments, but secretly hadn’t. Each was sure she would have been Heracles’ ladylove if she had not been accidentally born someone else and if she had ever met him.
The Heraklophiles clutched lists, lots of lists: lists of Heracles’ Labours and children and accomplishments, his school teachers and relations, his relations with his school teachers, his injuries. His kills. They brought these lists to every meeting of the Heraklophilia Club, even though they knew them by heart. Generally the guest speakers who came to address them in the ruined temple were storytellers. Once in a while they were lucky enough to have as guest speaker, an Eye-Witness: that is to say, the friend of a cousin of someone who would have seen Heracles fight the Giant Boar if they had not been out of town that day. The hope of seeing Hylas brought them to a fever pitch of excitement.
They knew about Hylas. They knew about all the other armour-bearers who had accompanied the Great Man Himself on his adventures. The Heraklophiles were all sure they would have been Heracles’ armour-bearers, too, if they had not been born someone else, and had looked like Hylas. Now they sat, sweating with nervousness, hands pinned between their knees, lips pinned between their teeth, half-expecting a hoax. As Hylas entered, they could not contain themselves and shot from their stony seats fluttering like the canaries in his prison cell. His looks shook them. Their fluttering came to a dead stop.
They had heard, of course, that Heracles’ armour bearer was famously handsome, but when they saw him, they simply stared, speechless. Sometimes the real thing is better than anything you can imagine.
“Hello,” he said.
The older women fanned themselves. “Such eyes!”
At one meeting, a visiting speaker had brought along an actual sliver of Heracles’ club, split off (he said) as the Great Man demolished the city of Troy. But this sliver of a boy was a living accessory. This boy had actually carried the Hero’s weapons and belongings, and cooked dinner for him on the trail to Adventure. In fact Xyno even hinted at something more…
It was all too much for them. For an hour and more Hylas talked: about the wonderful things he had seen Heracles do, the skills he had been taught by him. He even told them about the Dryopes and how his last memory of Heracles had been the sound of his master calling, calling and calling. It reduced him to tears, and that in turn made the audience weep. And though, normally, he would never have dreamed of saying that there were roses growing now where Heracles’ tears had fallen, he said it tonight. It made a nice ending for the story, and he half wanted to believe it himself. After Monstro, Hylas found it a relief to talk. The stories poured out of him. He did not mention the monsters, though. He was glad not even to think about them any more.
When it came to question-time, the Heraklophiles could not quite bring themselves to address Hylas himself, asking Xyno instead,
“What is his first memory of Herk? Does he remember meeting Herk for the first time?”
Hylas had to admit he did not.
A bulky sunburned farmer in a spotted goatskin cloak wiped the sweat from his face with shaking hands. “So is he really… you know... what you said. Is there more? Is there a … connection?”
The room gave a groan of unbearable curiosity. Hylas wondered whatever Xyno could have told them.
Xyno’s face dropped into a grin that showed his bottom teeth. “You only have to look at him, gentlemen. Judge for yourselves. How can we truly know for sure? But you know the Big Man. His h-appetites. You know old Herk’s reputation. Me, I’d wager a side of beef on it: this here boy is a pure-bred pup of the Big Man himself, born in secret to some royal princess. You are looking, here at a true-born son of Heracles.”
A woman fainted. The man with the cloak suffered palpitations, clutched his chest and had to go outside, to escape the press of people. No one offered to go with him: they might have missed whole minutes of being in the company of Heracles’ Boy. They offered Xyno hunting dogs and tracts of farmland, just to have Hylas sleep one night under their roof. They promised Xyno slaves and houses, chariots and posts in local government if he would just persuade Hylas to break bread at their tables or have his portrait painted alongside them. Xyno was wheezing with happiness as he mustered them into a queue and prepared to take their money. None of them gave a thought to the man outside with chest pains. Hylas did, though.
He did not want to be the cause of someone collapsing; especially without Panacea nearby to hand out medicines. Besides, he needed to get outside himself and breathe fresh air. Xyno’s lie had shocked him like a dog-bite. Heracles’ son?
“Are you all right now?” he asked the man leaning against the plough horse that had brought him.
The farmer boggled at him, barely believing Fate could be so kind. One perfect moment later, the farmer had thrown his goatskin cloak over Hylas’ head and slung him over the horse. He was a powerful man, palpitations or not. He was also in the grip of hysteria. One sniff of the air, one tiny sound of scuffling, and Xyno knew what was happening. He pushed past the queue, dodged out of the ruined Clubhouse and ran into the night. The black horse was barely visible in the darkness. Its rider was busy lashing Hylas across the saddlebow.
“Now put him down, sir. Don’t damage the goods. Don’t do me no good, don’t do him no good.”
The rider dug sharp, possessive fingers into his captured treasure. Hylas yelped – which alarmed the horse and it turned round and round on the spot, treading on Xyno. But the fetcher-and-fixer, seeing his most valuable commodity slipping out of his grasp barely felt the pain.
“Listen up! We can do business, look. You’re an itcher, I’m a scratcher! Xyno will offer you a good price!”
But the farmer was too mad with joy to talk business. He threw down his gold armlet and everything he had in his purse, as you might throw down a bone to keep a vicious dog occupied.
“Here! Take it! He’s mine now!”
“Big Man won’t stand for it!” Xyno threatened, as he gathered up the money.“Big Man’ll make you pay soon enough!”
It was the wrong thing to say. He had underestimated the obsessive nature of a true Heraklophile. The man on the horse burst into hysterical tears at the thought of Heracles seeking him out, appearing on his threshold one day in the full splendour of rage,
“Oh! Die at the hands of Heracles? Oh my soul! My immortal soul! What would I not give to be killed by Heracles!”
The horse had had enough, especially when Xyno, in his frustration, sank his teeth into its flank. Away went the keenest member of the Heraklophilia Club, and away went Hylas across his lap, jolted and pummelled by the horse’s bony shoulder blades until all sense was shaken out of him. The only thoughts he clung on to had been put there by Xyno. Perhaps Heracles would coming to look for him! Hearing that Hylas had been kidnapped, he would come raging over the curve of the world’s crust to pound on the kidnapper with his club.
Oh, and there was that other thought, too. About being Heracles’ son… The stockbreeder took a while to regain control of his horse, and all the while, laughter and snorts and little cries of astonishment were jolted from his throat by the thump of the gallop.
“Pretty girl. Good teeth. Good broad hips. You’ll like my little girl,” he assured Hylas. “You’ll like my Nomia.”
Xyno sat licking his wounds (and the cake crumbs caught in his chest-hair). He came to the conclusion he had missed a trick with the Heraklophiles. What he should have done was to auction off Hylas to the highest bidder. To own him, they would clearly have sold their own mothers as dog-meat. Anger gnawed on him like a bone, and for once the anger was chiefly at himself. He had lighted on the most valuable find of his career.
Patiently he had followed Hylas across the Egregian Plain and kept watch outside the vast pothole until Hylas finally came out of it, surrounded by a thousand kinds of deadly monster. Quelling his alarm, Xyno had joined the exodus. He had teased and tempted Hylas aside, subtly separated him from the uglies. But just as he stood to make a profit, the boy had been snatched away by a hysterical idiot in a goatskin cloak. A low growl rumbled in Xyno’s throat and dislodged the remaining cake crumbs from his chest. He resolved to get Hylas back, whatever it took.
Meanwhile, Thoosa could not help but fret about her friend. “Will he be safe with that… with a stranger?” she asked the Oracle.
“You think I know? You think I care, maybe?”
Thoősa flinched from the Oracle’s spittle. As Pythia moved away, agile now on her crutches, Thoősa called after her: “He isn’t Heracles, you know!”
Pythia wrenched her head round, lips rucked back off her teeth. “No. He’s worse.”
But then Lord Typhon realised Hylas was missing. “I want my lucky!” he ranted. “Find me my lucky! Snuff him up!” The wind was blowing in the wrong direction; no one could raise a scent – even the carnivores.
“Our Luck has run out!” moaned the giants.
“Ach, we don’t need no Hero’s boy. We can find Hyperboria without him. It’s this way,” said the cyclopses, and promptly set off in four different directions, to the rage of Typhon who ran among them nipping and scalding them with his army of heads: “I want my lucky! FIND ME MY LUCKY BOY!”