If the travellers had been in a forest, they might have mistaken the sound for a million leaves catching the breeze, rustling. But they were on open ground. Nothing but a blizzard of stars stood overhead. Soft as dewfall, words precipitated out of the chilly sky, and Thoősa’s upturned face sweated dewy fear. The sky was speaking.
Was it the voice of the Olymps – a whisper of menace spoken on the slopes of Olympus and carried on the wind? We see you. We see you. Why, then did Monstro not cower down (as Pythia the Oracle was doing) or break into a run? The Giants, who did not hear well, nudged at the cyclopses with their big thighs: “What they saying? You hear what they saying?” But soon the myriad overhead whispers separated out into single voices and were plain enough for everyone to hear.
Aquila the Eagle, pinions tipped with light, quivered like a hawk high above their heads, as though it might stoop at any moment on their field-mouse smallness.
“I, the Eagle of the gods, once used to sit on the wrist of Apollo and hunt with the huntress Artemis.”
The harpies shut their wings up tight. Pegasus spread his, in a flurry of dirty down.
“Then Zeus sent me to steal for him. From a hilltop. A sleeping boy. Some mother’s son. Some father’s heir. Ganymede.” Again the starry template of a bird quivered, curling is claws around some small, remembered shape. “For why? Why was this boy needed? To be a cupbearer. To fetch Zeus hippocrene in a golden goblet. A beautiful boy to prettify the halls of Olympus. Beauty for the Ugly Ones.” The sky sighed: a gusty night wind. “He paid the father, naturally. Unnaturally. Two horses. Is that payment enough for a boy? And what was my reward? I, Eagle of the Gods! This stellar perch. This ice-cold cage. This taxidermy of dark shoved between my ribs!”
The next constellation was harder to hear. Though it spanned a wilderness of sky, its voice was no louder than a bubbling breath. Pisces the Fish floated belly-up in an aquarium of dark.
“Remember, Typhon? Do you recall? How could you forget your siege of Olympus? Piling up mountains, one on top of another, to reach a level with the Olympians! Remember how the cowardly rulers of earth and heaven were so scared that they took on the shape of animals to hide from you? The goddess Aphrodite borrowed my shining scales, my flickering fins, my hollow ears, my tear-proof eyes, and she swam in the streams. Oh weeds, hide me! Oh frogs, be my friend! O shrimps, keep me secret! How badly she wanted my help! But see where she flung my skin when she was done with me? See where the gods scrape the scraps from their plates? Do you see? This Olympian rubbish dump of stars?”
Another voice rang across the sky:
“Whim and pique is all they are. Brats sticking pins into frogs. Casual cruelty.” There hung Queen Cassiopaeia, upside-down in her throne. Strange to think they had stood among the ruins of her palace while she hung watching them overhead. Had she seen Panacea fetch Cetus back to life – a sea monster sent by Zeus to ravage her country? “What wrong did I do, except to say that my daughter was lovely? What mother since time began has not thought her child the loveliest in all creation? See the vanity of the Olympians that they punish my proud love forever.”
Her constellation looked like a W, but of course it was fastened upside down: simply an M after all. An M for ‘Mother’. “Some say it was not the boasting. Some say it’s because I thought twice about giving Andromeda in marriage to Hero Perseus. Well? Would you marry your daughter to a boy who arrives carrying the head of a butchered woman in a bag? See what good Love did them, anyway, the two of them. See where it got them, look, The ‘Happy Pair’. Andromeda over here, Perseus other there. So shining that the Olympians found them …decorative; allowed them to serve as jewellery. Pinned them up for show.
“Love cools soon enough up here. Now Perseus spends his days throwing meteorites at the dark… Oh my aching head!”
Another of the constellations lay upside-down, too. “See me! Modelled by Hera out of her own talons? Daubed with her spite?” A feeble waggling of star-tipped claws could not right Cancer the Crab, lying helplessly on his back. Not so long before, Heracles the Hero had slammed it into the sky with his olive-wood club. There it would hang for ever. “No purpose was given me in life but to nip the one ankle. No fate in store but a smashed shell and legs snapped off. I was sent to stop Heracles killing the Hydra - but he knocked me away like a ball into long grass.”
The Echidna raised her hands, palm uppermost. Her straw bonnet tumbled down her back. Her hair unwound. Her massive motherly carcase swayed with grief. Tears of tree sap oozed brownly down her cheeks. Thanks to the Crab, she had identified one of her dead children, tossing stunted stump and amputated arms nearby. The Hero Heracles had cut off all of Hydra’s heads and seared the neck ends with hot tar to stop them re-growing. Now she stood with her back against the sky, like an orange tree espaliered against a wall. Echidna said, “Riddle for you. Riddle for you. What’s the difference between that motherless child up there and this childless mother down here?” said the Echidna. Her eyes trailed over the bristling, listening members of her monstrous nation before she answered her own question. “The Hydra can’t weep and I can’t stop, that’s what.”
There was a crackling sound as monsters uncricked their necks and turned to look at Hylas, armour-bearer to the Great Slaughterer.
“I wasn’t there. I didn’t…” Hylas began. Some other armour-bearer had helped Heracles lop the heads off the Hydra. “It wasn’t me!”
“You down there - Can you smell me? That same Slaughterer did this to me.” A low growl rumbled out of the sky. “Here! See here! Behold the Nemean Lion! A flayed carcase drawing the flies of the universe! Can you not smell my decay? Heracles did this to me.! Nothing could pierce my hide. Nothing! So Heracles used my own claws to flay me, then wore my pelt. Oh my pelt! My pelt! So cold in the sky without my pelt!”
Hylas pulled his hands up inside his sleeve-ends. His palms could almost feel the stiff, short hairs of that pelt, the softer mane fur. He had smoothed it flat a hundred times for Heracles to sleep on. That pelt.
The Oracle rose to her feet. She searched the sky until she found what she was looking for. It was so long since she had looked for her old friend, but of course: Pythos the Dragon was still here. The memories dated from so many years ago.
Every day at Delphi, perched on her tripod, Pythia had looked for the eyes of Pythos in the night sky, watching her, watching over Delphi.
“Once upon a time,” she told Thoosa, “the Shrine of Delphi belonged to Mother Earth. But Apollo wanted it. So, of course, he fought the dragon who had always guarded me – day and night guarded me – kept me from harm.” She pointed a wavering finger at the constellation of the Dragon, its eyes fixed on her, even now, with baleful regret. “Apollo wanted mortals to ask their questions of him.. Wanted their fawning, begging rituals. Wanted their grateful sacrifices. So he killed Pythos and hung him up in the sky. Another trophy on his dark trophy shelf. Pythos still watches me, see. Watches over me. Day and night. Watches. …What do you expect me to do, Pythos? What? It’s not my fault! They do these things! They…"
Ashamed of her ignorance, Thoősa whispered to the winged horse: “I always thought – the constellations – I thought it was a marvellous thing - a reward. To be embroidered on to the sky like that.”
Pegasus trembled like a newborn foal. It cast a nervy glance towards the Echidna.
“I am a winged thing, girl child. My mother could not give birth. For years we were trapped inside her - my brother and I - sharing one womb… legs, wings, heads, fear... claustrophobia. To those up there, it is an agony. To me it would be bliss. To me it would be freedom.”
Dolphins and wolves, hare and ravens, all trapped in the tar-pit sky, twitched in their everlasting death throes. A celestial centaur stamped its foot, and the centaurs of Monstro fretted like horses in a thunderstorm.
Music tinkled from the sky. Lyre music. Music Hylas had heard many, many times aboard the Argos. “Orpheus? Orpheus!” he shouted so loud that the sheep around him scattered.
The Oracle give a sharp flick to the back of his head. “Space bends Time, Lucky Boy. Space bends Time.” Her voice was entirely changed. “See the wreckage of your ship, boy? The Argo? There’s the keel. There’s the poop. There’s the magic compass… When does it meet its Fate? Has it already happened or is it still to come? Impossible to tell.” Then she darted a look about her and pressed her fingers against her mouth.
A bolt of pure fear went through Hylas. If the Argo was up there, where was its crew? Where were the friends who had taught him to make music, shoot a bow, navigate by the stars, bend his knees when he lifted heavy…
“Look! Look there!” The voice did not condense out of the sky. It was Panacea, ashen as snow, her head bent back so far that her hair touched the ground. Tears ran down from the corners of her eyes and into her ears. “There is my father! Father! Father!” She reached up so high that her shoulderblades crackled. But what is the height of an earthbound girl in comparison with the sky? A mosquito took advantage of the moment to sting her wrist. Her father Asclepius said nothing: perhaps Zeus’s thunderbolt had blinded him, deafened him or rendered him dumb .
His constellation had no features, no shining eyes. Only the snakes he held in either hand writhed a little, and the asps in Panacea’s bag of herb writhed too, in sympathy. “The best healer in the whole world,” she whispered. “The best father. You should not be up there. You should be here. You should be here. How do the O’s sleep under this canopy of their crimes?”
Her father did not respond. His patient spoke, though: Orion. Orion the Hunter, mightiest constellation of them all.
“Look up, Monstro. I will not plead my cause. I will not curry favour with you. I vowed once to kill you all – every slumping, blaring, brutish, misshapen one of you.” His voice was like a wild night wind, the kind that tears haystacks into straws and makes the roofs of houses fly away. The kind that makes horses stampede. “But I have learned patience. Where was the justice in killing Asclepius the Doctor for trying to fetch me back to life? Strike dead the Doctor for fear of his Patient? Asclepius was one of their own – a son of Apollo! - and still Zeus slaughtered him! That was cowardice. That was the act of a despot! And what was the only thing Apollo could think to do? His son is struck dead by Zeus, and all he can think is to slaughter Zeus’s cyclopses. Tit for tat! Vile boy. Petty, vile boy. Peevish, poisonous brat!”
The cyclopses, survivors of that peevish massacre, uttered a deep-throated chorus of moans and roars and groans, remembering, with vivid horror, the unexplained, inexplicable destruction of their tribe by the sun god Apollo.
“They hung me - dead - up here, as huntsmen hang up antlers in the eaves of their halls. But they were fools to do it. My blood has boiled in this icy realm. I have turned monster. I have become kin to you, Monstro, out of pure Hate. And shall you go North? What? Graze away your last years like old horses put out to grass? Westward! To westward, yes! Raise those heads! Westward to Olympus, and take back the Titan throne! Avenge yourself and us: the Wronged, hanged with a rope of moonlight! Crucified to the sky with nails of light! We have done our part. We have guided you here. Now rise up, Monstro! Rise up and be revenged – for the wrongs to you and the wrongs to us. I am Monstro now. I have looked down from the sky and seen a thousand kinds of ugly, and all of them were Olympians. Hunt them through their cloudy palaces. Scrape them off their mountain like bird lime. Sink your revenge in their throats and drink their immortal blood!”
For a dizzying moment, the sky spun, so that those looking up reeled on their heels. Orion had released his grip on the hands of the Plough, and the signposts of heaven – the ones Hylas had been following so doggedly – swung back to their true bearings.
Thoősa expected the monsters to be surprised. But there was no surprise. They had long since sensed the skewing of the constellations, sensed the route they were taking. Typhon had been among the last to realise. Ladon had swallowed down Abaris the Priest, to silence him, hiding the truth in his monumental gut. Every one of them had inwardly changed direction; had changed their choice of destination. Monstro was making for Olympus: an army commandeered by the stars to destroy the House of Zeus.