The Wrong Kind of Treasure
Aboard the Trambelus, the Pirate Captain’s ambitions were wilting. The more he thought about Xyno’s story of freaks and monsters riding a sea monster, the more stupid he felt. What kind of gullible fool was he to have swallowed such ridiculous lies?
And suppose – just suppose - the monsters really did exist. What likelihood that any of them could steal the sea god’s treasure and reach surface without getting Poseidon’s trident between their shoulder blades? He slapped viciously at his own face as he walked in smaller and smaller circles around the boy and girl bound to the mast.
Well. He could at least sell them for slaves. The absurdly beautiful boy, in particular, would bring a good price. Foolish to wait about for the mangy little liar to return. Wiser to weigh anchor and keep moving. There was a good chance Xyno was even now snitching on the pirates, claiming bounty money. “Up anchor!” he blared.
But his crew, ranged along the ship’s rail, did not seem to hear him. The water below them was seething. Fish-tailed maidens, hands cluttered with gifts, clamoured around the hull, all shouting out one name, in voices as shrill as starlings. “Hylas! Hylas? Hylas! Cooee!”
The Captain was at a loss. “What’s Hylas? What does it mean?”
“Here!” said Thoősa eagerly. “This is Hylas!”
Hylas looked at her sharply. Soon Heracles would sail over the horizon, fetched by the Laelaps and ready to rescue him. That would be time enough to say who he was. The Captain freed him from his ropes and told him to climb the mast, so that the mermaids could see him. Hylas stumbled to his feet, but he was pink with blushing. This was horribly embarrassing.
In fact, all the embarrassing encounters of his young life rolled together were not as bad as this riot of half-naked fish-women. When they spotted him astride the yard-arm, they shrieked and whooped and groaned and sighed, blew kisses from their pouting fish lips, pelted him with offerings. Rings and scales and gems and sea shells rained on to the deck. Heavier things had to be lifted aboard by the pirate crew: a chariot; a flagon of Olympian hippocrene… Hysterical mermaids tussled with each other to gain a hold on the anchor rope and pull themselves higher.
Up at the masthead, Hylas was dismayed to see more arriving on every wave, some towing rafts, some accompanied by panniered dolphins bearing larger gifts. A happier sight, farther off, was a little fishing boat with Panacea kneeling up in the bow. Xyno was at the oars.
“There he is! That’s him!” cried Panacea pointing. Such a clever plan of Xyno’s, and it had gone perfectly. He had got the mermaids to steal Poseidon’s treasure, as gifts for Hylas. Now the pirates would deliver up their hostages and sail away with their booty, and all would be well. “You are so clever, Xyno!”
Xyno did not respond, except in huge grunts of exertion as he heaved on the oars. His plan was going perfectly. Not only were the mermaids trawling the oceans for treasure, he also found himself sharing a boat with a witch, a worker of magic, a woman who could change a dolphin into a man and do who-knows-what else. Unforeseen possibilities teemed in his brain. Faster, faster. He must not let the pirates weigh anchor and sail away with his share of the treasure. Bad enough that he would have to share it with them.
Xyno rowed so hard that his small ribcage bulged through his pelt. When he got back on board the pirate ship, should he keep pretty-boy Hylas by him? Such a crowd-pleaser. Or should he cast the brat adrift? He did not want Typhon dogging him through the world, hunting for his lucky mascot.
No! Better would be to kill the boy and put the blame on the pirates! Then Monstro would slaughter the pirates and all the loot would belong to Xyno! Monsters have no interest in treasure; they don’t prize it. The Trambelus and Poseidon’s treasure would both belong to Xyno.
The surface of the sea was razored with flukes, as yet more mermaids heard the rumour and brought stolen dowries, hoping to buy the love of Heracles’ Boy. They raised such pandemonium around the ship that Xyno dared not row in among them. Something else streaked by, dark as cloud-shadow, tore up little tussocks of sea and set the boat rocking: Xyno thought he heard a bark. Unnerved, he shipped his oars.
And while he sat there, he saw it all come by him – by raft, by hand, carried by dolphins – the treasure stolen from Poseidon’s coffers.
What does the word mean to you? More importantly, what did it mean to the God of the Oceans, the Earth-shaker, the Earthquake-Maker?
It is true that Poseidon liked to watch a sinking ship voyage slowly, slowly towards the sea bed, loosing a litter of cargo, rigging and drowned men. It is true that he swept together all the casks and chests and crates and crockery deposited by shipwrecks, and pored over them with interest. They gave him an insight into the lives of the mortals who daily clambered over his blue-glass roof. Some people collect owl pellets and examine them to find out more about owls. Poseidon did something similar with shipwrecks. But ‘treasure’? What did Poseidon truly treasure?
Like anyone, he prized the rarest and most extraordinary things in his world: sea horses and deepwater seasnakes pulsing with lights; the ink of squid; the funny clown fish; the shells of hermit crabs. In fact his shell collection had grown as high as any mountain on dry land. He liked, for a hobby, to crochet white horses out of sea foam, though he let them go as soon as they were made: they did not keep well in captivity.
Poseidon had one precious memory of his mother. She was saying, as she braided her golden locks, “Your hair won’t curl, Possy, if you don’t eat your snails.” So, one thousand years later, and with no hair left to curl, he still ate sea-snails and crabs daily, religiously. He was a connoisseur of crabs.
He marvelled at the pumice rock spewed out by undersea volcanoes – so light that it floated. He admired the artistry of the porpoises who could swirl sardines into solid silver balls before eating their fill. And being cruel by nature, he loved to watch lamprey eels bore through the flesh of larger fish to eat out their insides. These were the things Poseidon treasured above gold or sunken cargos. Why would a god prize anything made by mortals?
The things the mermaids brought had all been filched from Poseidon’s coffers. They were just not quite what Xyno or the Pirate Captain were expecting.
Thoősa flinched as a piece of pumice hit the sail and shattered into grey dust. Cuttle shells like cut-throat razors skidded along the deck. Long-dead, petrified sea horses rattled down in a miniature cavalry charge. Aboard the largest of the mermaid rafts were the figureheads of sunken ships and the jawbone of a whale. One pirate, leaning out short-sightedly for a better view, was accidentally harpooned by the exquisite sting from a stingray.
The Captain lowered baskets at first, expecting to draw up golden idols or the sceptres of drowned kings. Instead, he drew up the ink-sacks of dismembered squid, eyeballs of seals, swords of swordfish, the exploded remains of deepwater worms. “Weigh anchor! Weigh anchor!” he begged now, but the anchor rope was ivy-clad with mermaids lobbing sea urchins and spider crabs. Assuming he was under attack, the Captain retaliated with fireballs – twists of wicker dipped in tar and set alight.
Thwarted in their efforts to reach Hylas, the nymphs lost their temper. They began to put some of their gifts to better use: the tusks of walruses, the nose-bones of narwhals and the tools of drowned ships’ carpenters. They bored holes in the hull of the Trambelus. If they could not climb up, they would bring the lovely boy down to them: ship, crew and all.
From a furlong’s distance, Xyno and Panacea watched spellbound as the pirates fought a bewildered, last-ditch battle with four hundred love-struck mermaids.
Thoősa, climbing up to join Hylas on the crosstree of the mast, clung tight to him in terror. In doing so, she fetched a barrage of hisses and jeers from the mermaids round the ship. Each had decided Hylas would be hers before the day was over.
Hylas pointed out the little fishing boat off the port bow at a safe distance. “They’ll rescue you,” he told Thoősa, attempting a cheery smile. “When the ship goes down, Xyno will pick you up, see?”
He held out no such hope for himself: the mermaids looked all too much like the Dryopes in the pool. Romantic ardour was turning, little by little, to sheer menace. The ship began to list.
“Give them the boy!” cried the Captain. “Give them the boy before these hags send us to the bottom!”
The first two pirates who came up the mast Hylas was able to fight off with his feet. But then the Captain’s Mate fetched an axe and began to hack at the mast. Each stroke of the axe sent woodchips flying, shook the mast from deck to tip, vibrated through the children’s flesh, and set their hearts trembling.
Off the port bow, Xyno unshipped his oars and began to row.
“What are you doing, Xyno? We can’t leave!” cried Panacea.
Bones and offal in place of gold and gemstones? Crustaceans instead of crowns? Bending to each stroke brought Xyno’s teeth close to his knees, and he chewed clumps of hair out of his own thighs, in sheer vexation.
“Xyno? We cannot abandon them!”
Of course the secret of success is to be adaptable – to know when the game’s lost – to make the best of a bad job. Xyno mastered his disappointment and put on a brave face. “Your magic remedies, lady…” he said, “could they prettify the likes of Xyno, d’you think? Make ladies like the likes of me? Could they?”
Panacea ignored him. She was still kneeling up in the bow, straining to keep the ship in sight despite the widening distance and a rising sea mist. She rocked with sorrow when the sail gave a death rattle, and the mast of the Trambelus slowly toppled.
Thoősa and Hylas were catapulted overboard from the lurching masthead. They put out heir hands – fallers can’t help it – and hit the water so hard that the sound carried far and wide. But its hardness did not keep them from falling onwards, deeper and deeper into an airless realm of silver bubbles.