Sheep and a Turtleoise
Hylas resolved to say absolutely nothing once he reached the farmhouse. No stories. No anecdotes. No answers to any questions. Farmer Nomius would get nothing from his thieving. Not a word about Heracles would pass Hylas lips, and if the farmer’s little daughter wanted a playmate, she could play with the wasps, for all the fun Hylas would show her.
Nomius’ daughter, though, proved not to be ‘little’ at all. Nomia was twenty and very curly. She had a pet lamb which she carried with her everywhere. At least it had been a lamb when Nomia first adopted it, wrapped it in a shawl and began calling it her ‘sweetest little darling’. Since then, it had grown to a size she could barely lug clear of the ground without both arms and a risk of back-strain.
Being a soft-hearted, caring girl, she had not put it out to grass, but stowed it in a sort of barrow which she pushed about the house and yard. The farm was remote, and Nomia lived largely in the company of sheep. She had even begun to look a little like a sheep herself. She was delighted to have a visitor, clapping her hands and dancing a little dance, tapping Hylas’ fringe to watch it bounce, and declaring him “adorable!” Accustomed as she was to the company of sheep, she did not even notice his obstinate silence.
“He’s nice, Father. He’s pretty. Is he staying to dinner? Should I make something nice for dinner? Is he visiting? Should I put some nice flowers in the purple room?”
Her father was noisier in his excitement. “I got him! I fetched him for you, dearest! Herks’ own boy! Herk’s very own armour-bearer! For you! For my little Nomia! If only your mother could be here! She’d be so proud! The bloodline! Think of the bloodline!”
Nomius’s money came from breeding up new strains of sheep and goats – hardier, meatier, bigger, woollier. His flocks were a motley of goaty sheep, sheepy goats, high-yield milkers and fluffy rugs in the making. So his thoughts naturally circled round breeding.
When it came to his one-and-only beloved daughter, he wanted the Best. All fathers do. Tonight, at the Heraklophile Club, the Best had practically fallen into Nomius’s lap. He could barely speak for the tears of joy clogging his throat.
“Nomia, meet your future husband! Son of Heracles the Hero, grandson of Zeus himself! Think of the bloodline!”
The sheep in the trolley blinked its yellow eyes. Hylas breathed in his own spit and began coughing. Nomia looked at Hylas in a wholly different way and gave a kind of bleat of her own.
“The wedding’s a real bottle of worms, of course,” her father prattled. “Do we invite the gods? Do we not? I mean how is it done? Should I go to Olympus? How to get in touch? No matter. The date is the thing. A lucky date. It should be a grand affair – there again, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it secret. Do I invite the Club? Or will they say I’ve broken the rules? They might even mount a raid – you know, to steal him away for themselves… No, no. Not the Club. Suppose the Big Man hears tell of it and comes striding up the lane himself! Just imagine!”
In Nomius’ imagination, the rafters overhead were already dripping with mayflowers and marriage music. Inside his head, in fact, the grandchildren were already born: descendants of the gods.
“But I’m only eleven,” Hylas protested. The Heraklophile spun round on the spot, arms outstretched with rapture.
“I can wait!” he said.
Hylas was sure Nomia would sooner die than marry a bridegroom nine years younger and four spans shorter than she. Just to make perfectly certain, he told her plainly, “I’m not Heracles’ son, you know.”
”Never mind,” she said.
“I’m only his armour-bearer, and I definitely had a father because I remember him almost…sometimes... and I never…”
“Never mind,” said Nomia.
“I’m not super-strong, you know? I’m not even brave. Not like a real Hero. I can only play the lute and cook barley cakes. And shoot a bit. And fence, I suppose. Sing, maybe.”
“Mmm!” said Nomia, impressed. “Barley cakes.”
“Heracles won’t come looking for me, if that’s what you think. Probably by now he thinks I’m dead - and anyway he’s quite deaf so he won’t hear any rumours about me being here. So he won’t come here. He won’t.”
“Never mind.” Nomia did not seem to share her father’s obsession with the Great Man Heracles.
“I’ll beat you every day!” Hylas threatened, as a last desperate resort. “Husbands are allowed!”
“Not when I’m expecting,” said Nomia with a cheerful, placid, cow-like smile, and shut the hatch to the cellar where they had stowed Hylas until the wedding arrangements were made.
Perhaps they thought that down in the damp dark of the cellar he would grow quicker. Mushrooms do. The cellar did not compare well with the Argo yellow laden with sunlight and bound round with a dazzle of sea. It did not compare well even with Monstro City. There were no puddles of burning coal gas. There were no pot plants. No Thoősa or Panacea. No one telling him Hylas to lead the way to Hyperboria. Its darkness was crammed full of tedious minutes and weary hours: plenty of time to think about what had happened to him since parting company with Heracles. (He did not bother thinking about Xyno’s nonsense: Hylas, son of Heracles, grandson of Zeus, indeed.)
At least here he was safe from the monsters: their teeth, their venom, their coils and claws, their white-hot metal, their smell. Their desperation. Their sadness. Their hatred of everything he loved. What had possessed the Postman to dub him ‘lucky’, then give him to the monsters? Who could wish anything but bad luck on that nest of ugliness? Why had the man ever thought Hylas could guide the monsters to Hyperboria?
Nomia brought him bowls of curds-and-whey with funny faces picked out in redcurrants or purple grapes. She brushed his hair for him and made him a waistcoat that was too small: she was sewing him his wedding clothes, she said.
One day, he resolved to escape, crouched beneath the cellar hatch on a stool, and propelled himself upwards as the hatch lifted. That was the day she had brought a copper bathtub to bathe him in. His skull collided with the tub, and he knocked himself cold. She bandaged him and tucked him into bed. With wool from her pet lamb, she knitted him woollen bags to keep his feet warm – a bizarre, itchy invention of her own. She held his hand when he did not want his hand held, and talked about flowers and doves and how many children she wanted (nine). There was something almost terrifying about her pudgy, soft, white touch. To Hylas, their interlaced fingers had a look of Hydra about them: writhing, doomed.
Her lamb always came with her, tumbling down into the cellar like an avalanche only to be lugged back out again like a bed-ridden relation being rescued from a fire. Baby’’s diet of titbits had made it fleshy and bloated. Horns were sprouting. Given his way, Hylas would have turned it out-of-doors the first time he trod in its droppings. But he had to admit, Nomia was a devoted pet-owner. She lavished true love on Baby, much as the Argonauts lavished sheep’s blood on their altars when they made sacrifice to the gods.
He comforted himself: he would be able to leave Nomia whenever he wanted after the wedding. Just walk away. Heracles always did that to his women.. The gods were the worst jilts of all. Look at Zeus, wenching his way from alpha to omega…
Hylas pulled himself up short. The cellar damp was obviously bad for a boy: blasphemies were springing up inside his head, like mould. Penned up in perpetual dark, he slept a lot, his laurel crown under his pillow, his feet too hot in their woolly boots.
He dreamed that he was looking out across a plain. A distant dust cloud spoke of an army charging towards him. Or was he leading the way, with the army galloping along behind, following his lead? Once, the priest Abaris flew through his sleeping brain, at the speed of an arrow. Laurel leaves fell one by one, as you would expect from a crown crushed under a pillow. Hylas dreamed a nymph spoke to him in a whisper, peeping out from a laurel bush. Not wine but milk. Not man but child. Not love but to love… That’s what she wants. Oh sister, sister, hear my thoughts and come.
Outside the damp atmosphere of Monstro, skin and hides grew dry and sore in the heat. Phantasos had told them to travel only at night, but Typhon’s desperation to find his lucky mascot meant that they travelled by day too, scouring the scrubby countryside. In the hot sunshine, the turtleloise’s shell began to crack like an old saddle. The noonday heat penetrated the cracks and burned the soft tissue underneath. In short, the turtleloise began to roast in its own shell. It was a voiceless monster, so Panacea was slow to realise that it was in distress. As soon as she did, she salved its sunburn, but the fragments of shell still curled back and fell off, leaving a spongy yellow ugliness cross-crossed with livid red. She would have swathed it in willow leaves and chickpea paste, but her pet snakes could not find the ingredients.
There was no clean cloth to wrap the creature in. She was afraid infection would set in and the turtleloise would die. Once, Ares god of War was chasing Aphrodite goddess of Love, so she conjured up a river between them. A crowd of children saw it and began to laugh at Ares.
But pinning a smile to his grim face, he turned to the children: “Which of you would like a chance to wear this helmet of mine, my breastplate, too, if you like.”
He even offered them his tough, black shield. Those who accepted were instantly transformed into the world’s first turtleloises which Ares then hurled into the river to use as stepping stones. His heavy tread crazed their shells, of course, but he was able to cross over and continue his chase. Once, the breed had lumbered about the watercress beds of Hellas in hundreds, munching the greenery. And now it looked as if the last turtleloise in the world was about to be lost.
“Will it live?” she asked the Oracle, who instantly bristled with rage.
“...No, no. I wasn’t asking if you knew, Pythia. I was just asking what you thought.”
Pythia swung back round on her crutches and looked more closely. Small and rubbery now, without its war-shield shell, the turtleloise looked rather like a flayed otter.
“It has a face only its mother could love,” she said harshly. “And it has no mother. You should put it out of its misery.”
“I’ll look after it,” said Thoősa hastily.
Still astride Pegasus, she had hands free to carry the invalid. So they wrapped the turtleloise in cobweb made at speed by Arachne the Spinner (Panacea said cobweb had healing properties) and laid it in Thoősa’s arms, where it made no sound at all.
“Is it related to the Blob?” she asked the Echidna who came to stroke Pegasus and stayed to weep over the shelled turtleloise. “It looks a bit like Blob, only a hundred times bigger.”
“Nah. Blob’s a yoonick,” sobbed the Echidna.
“Unique.” Pegasus, with his precise, thoroughbred diction, corrected her. “Blob is unique - a singularity. An unknown. The x in the equation. He was found on the rim of Pandora’s Box, you know? That delightful surprise-package sent to Humankind by Zeus? Such a thoughtful, generous gift from a King to his subjects, don’t you think?”
Thoősa knew the story well enough, of course: how Zeus had mustered every misery, blight and hardship he could invent, stowed them in a wooden chest and sent them as a wedding present to a girl too inquisitive to leave well alone. Pandora opened the chest - let them out - as Zeus had known she would: locusts to eat up the world’s happiness.
“Pandora slammed the lid as fast as she could, naturally,” Pegasus was saying. “Had to open it again, though, because the only good thing in the whole box was still trapped inside.”
“Hope,” said Thoosa.
“Should have left it shut,” muttered the Oracle sourly. “Hope’s a killer, just like the rest. I’ve seen Hope. Take my word for it. Hope’s the carrot that tempts a donkey on through the gates of the bone yard.”
Pegasus waited politely for the Oracle to finish ranting, then went on, “Blob was found on the rim of the chest, as I say. Half in, half out. Slammed out of shape by the shutting of the lid, do you see? Jolted out of his name. No memory of his purpose. Is he, like Hope…” - a glance at Pythia - “a good thing? Or is he some form of evil yet to come in to its own? Whatever Blob is,” added the winged horse admiringly, “he is indestructible. Over the while, he has been trodden on by almost everyone here, and yet he survives. Unbelievable.”
“He? She?” said the Echidna, tenderly checking Pegasus’s hooves for stones (or possibly Blob). “Always thought our Blob was female.”
“It is a blob, Ma. When it is mature, I expect it will breed by parthenogenesis.”
The Echidna threw a bunch of silver horsehair in the air. “Ooo don’t you just love my Peggy when he talks dirty!”
Thoősa cradled the turtleloise, feeling its weight as an ache between her shoulder blades. Nothing but a faint, writhing shudder proved it was not already dead.
All this while, Typhon Lord of Darkness, was roaming up and down the straggling column of monsters, haranguing and biting them.
“I WANT MY LUCKY! FIND ME MY LUCKY! SNUFF HIM UP!”
“Oh snuff him up yourself,” snapped Pythia. “You’re taller than any of us, and you have more noses.”
The column stopped dead. An awed silence fell. Pythia, still in the grips of her foul temper, had made a serious error of judgement. Lord Typhon, King of the one-time world, already angered by losing Hylas, was enraged by the Oracle’s insolence. All his eighty heads turned and regarded her, outrage written wherever there were enough features to allow it. Her surliness dissolved, and she hung limply between her crutches, ashen with fear. Typhon breathed in through eighty throats…
Just when it seemed Pythia must be burned up like a rabbit in a grass fire, Talos stepped in front of her. A blast of fire engulfed the Brass Man, while everyone else ducked. A gout of sulphurous ginger smoke was all that circled Talos and reached the Oracle Pythia. Even so, her body went rigid as she breathed it in and she fell on her face and began to fit. The entire company stood by in gawping silence, except for Typhon, whose outburst had left him breathless and coughing.
They watched the Oracle’s epilepsy shake her, while the Brass Man’s heated body clicked and pinged. His polished body was sooty again, but he was unharmed. The cyclopses glanced at one another uneasily. They had built Talos themselves, but they were only now realising quite what a marvel they had made: a monster who could stand up to Typhon. They just hoped the Lord of Darkness would never have reason to punish them for it. On to this scene came a stranger, loping, head-down, dodging through the dusk, making directly for the column.
Laelaps the Dog began to bark a warning, Argus the peacock to shriek. Thoősa knew the dogged, doggy Xyno at once, and looked beyond him, hoping Hylas was still with him.
Typhon would have burned Xyno to ashes in a flash, but he was busy coughing up clinker from his clogged lungs, and his heads were rattling about like cherries on a stalk. Before he knew it, Xyno was dancing around his feet, pressing himself against the Prince’s calves, licking his ankles, jabbering:
“Thieves! Wicked thieves, your Mightyness! Stole your Lucky Boy and locked him up in a cellar. I can take you there. I can take you there. Anything to be of service! Anything to serve Lord Typhoon.”
The Oracle, with Panacea’s help, sat up, dazed and stricken. She did not wish Hylas found, but if Typhon did not get back his Lucky Boy, his temper might just fall on her, and then the screams would be heard as far off as Olympus itself.