He held Hylas close, a hand under each armpit, pressing the boy tenderly to his chest. The monsters saw an embrace between friends who have survived a shared peril. Thoősa saw it for what it was.
Hylas felt it – felt the cold metal take on pleasant warmth and then grow uncomfortably hot. He tried to push away and his hands were stained black from the ash still coating Talos’ chest. Polyxo.
“No! He couldn’t help it! He was a slave!”
Thoősa had clambered up the burial mound of an archer, grabbed the bow on top and ran back to swing it against Talos’ shiny legs. “Stop! No! Let him go! Hylas was Heracles’ slave! Stop! A slave! Like you! A slave, Talos! He didn’t have a choice!”
The heat under Hylas’ armpits was making him pour sweat. He tried to draw up his feet – to push away from Talos with the soles of his shoes, but he was held too close. He wanted to argue with Thoősa - to correct her mistake. “Armour bearer! Armour ---” he heard himself saying, while the other half of his brain told him it did not matter: that soon he would be dead, seared like a fish on a grill, while monsters looked on cheering.
“Stop, Talos!” Panacea came pushing her way through the press of bodies, squeezing past flanks, carapaces and scaly haunches. “Talos, he is not an Argonaut. He is no kind of Hero. Just a boy. He is just a boy, Talos. Not a Hero.”
The monsters began to realise the true situation and to fall quiet. Phantasos leant his own voice in defence of Hylas. “No kind of Hero, Talos. A slave just like you.”
When Talos relented, and set Hylas back down on the ground, there was complete silence, but for the faint grumble of words inside the Oracles’ stomach. A circle formed, solid as a brick wall.
“This is Heracles’ boy?” said Typhon.
The name had had a sobering effect on everyone. The exultant mood drained away, and those who had begun to see Hylas as a boon looked again and saw his hideous beauty.
“Heracles the Butcher,” they snarled.
The Echidna swayed like a tree in a gale, reminded of her dead daughter, the Hydra. Heracles had hacked the Hydra to death, branch by branch, head by head, searing her neck-ends with fire to stop them re-growing.
“We should kill his Lucky Boy,” said Typhon. “By clubbing and fire.” The newly arrived harpies could add to the long list of Heracles’ crimes. They told of their dead companions, butchered by Argonauts only a few weeks before. “He was there with them. Heracles was one of them,” they whistled, shrill as chalk on slate. The few surviving killer cranes clacked their beaks. The harpies descended on Hylas, leathery wings flapping round him like a tent, their women’s mouths gnashing for his windpipe.
“Only his slave!” cried Hylas, cowering on his knees now, arms over his head, hoping they hid his cowardly betrayal of his master.
“No! He is no relation,” Phantasos swiftly confirmed. “The boy is a … what? A kind of…. talisman! Yes. A mascot! A talisman. He brings Heracles luck.”
“So we should definitely kill him,” said the Echidna flatly. “By clubbing and fire.”
One of Typhon’s malformed heads dipped past Hylas’ ear, whispered, “Not so lucky then, eh boy?“ and laughed so hard that its nose bubbled mucous.
Phantasos had had to shout to make himself heard above the babble of voices baying for Hylas’ death. He raised it louder, then louder still: “Why do you think I brought him here? Heracles kept him close because the boy brought him luck. This is Heracles’ lucky mascot….And now he is yours!”
The more stupid of Typhon’s heads were slow to fall silent, but the one which wore the crown answered at once. “Typhon’s Luck?”
“Monstro’ s Luck. A good thing to steal your enemy’s luck, surely. You should keep him by you, yes? As Heracles did?”
Crouched on the ground, his arms still over his head, Hylas scoured his memory for any time he had brought his master good luck. Barley cakes and fresh water, yes. Straw for his bedding and wood for his fire, yes. But Luck? The luck was all Hylas’s, that he should have met with Phantasos on the road, and Thoősa and Panacea, and the kind of friends heroic enough to plead for his life in the face of a thousand kinds of ugly.
He had more luck still. The citizens of Monstro believed Phantasos. Looking back now, they shaped the facts round this ne truth. Wasn’t the repulse of the locust-eaters clear proof of his luck-bringing qualities?
And the citizens of Monstro were sorely in need of luck just then. The locusts would soon be back. Sooner or later, the locust-eaters would storm MonstroCity, penetrate underground and eat the tenants out of house, home and memory - unless they found it empty, deserted, its citizens gone.
Pythia said as much that night, in her shrill, panicky voice: “If you stay here, your stories will die! Then there will be nothing left!”
Her words disturbed Monstro like a gardener’s fork under a rosebush.
“The Oracle has spoken! The Oracle has seen our doom! The Oracle says…”
Pythia was aghast. “It was not a prophecy! I was not prophesying! I was speaking the simple truth! You will die if you stay here!”
Reactions differed. Some had lived underground so long that the idea of daylight was more fearful than the locusts. Some were in favour of making one last rabid charge against the foe. Still more wanted to return to the place of their birth and to make themselves graves there. Some wanted to scour the world for the Herb of Immortality. Some just wanted Out.
“You should go to Hyperboria,” suggested Thoősa brightly. “That priest Abaris said everyone’s happy there.”
One or two faces turned sharply. A few heads cocked with interest. One of them was Phantasos’. Such a simple notion. More easily said than done, but such a good idea. “The girl is right. You should go to the Land of the North Wind. I have never been myself – they have no need of dreams – but I have heard…” More listened when the Dream-bringer said it - his voice carried authority – but others scurried away into crevices or sank themselves in sumps of oil, or changed colour to blend in with their familiar, stony habitat. Change is often more fearful than doing nothing. Hyperboria? None of them had been there.
“Say it again, Pythia,” Phantasos murmured in an undertone. “They will believe you.” The Oracle shook her head violently: fake prophecies were as loathsome to her as real ones. But squabbles were breaking out between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, between old and young. Stay or go. Fight on or shift ground. “Say it, Pythia!” the Dream-Bringer urged. “They will believe you. Just tell them you have seen the future and their future lies in Hyperboria.”
The Oracle had begun to shudder and tremble, her head rolling on her shoulders, her hands clenched against her chest. “I will not. I cannot. Do not tell me what I should say! Who are you to tell me what to say?”
For centuries, the monstrous refugee underworld had lurched along, brawling and sulking, swaggering, mating, helping, defending and eating each other, reliving their past glories and cursing the Olympians who had stolen their territory, transformed them into stone or greenery, sent Heroes to kill them; cornered them all in a hole in the ground. Now a handful of visitors had come along and unsettled them. Prince Typhon and his wife the Echidna had had enough. In the end, it was they who decided matters.
“Come if you want. Stay and rot if you don’t,” boomed the Prince of Darkness, his voice carrying into every corner of MonstroCity. “I Typhon, King of Titans, eater of hearts and kidneys, I am quitting this latrine!”
“Riddle for you, riddle for you. What does a dead dog say to a juicy bone? ….Nothing. ‘Cos he’s left it too late, ha’n’t he! Don’t let’s leave it too late, my little bugaboos!”
“What does the Sybil want to do?” bellowed Typhon.
“The Sibyl wants to – “
But the chortling Prince did not wait for the answer before flicking the brittle little pellet of a woman into his wife’s furry pelt for safe keeping. He was not about to leave behind his daily joke.
The Laelaps was eager to cock his leg in the open air. The cyclopses emptied their workshops of weapons and thunderbolts. The flesh-eating horses promised themselves fresh meat along the way.
“The bear went over the mountain; the bear went over the mountain; And what did he see when he got there?” sang the Echidna.
“Hyperboria, Ma, and he liked it too much to come back and tell us,” said Pegasus.
She kissed his white nose. “Do you wonder I loves him like a son? Son? Daughter? Which are you again, Peggy? Riddle for you! What did the Hyperborian say to the poor old Echidna?”
“Hello and welcome?” suggested Thoősa, at which the Echidna hugged her and wept something white that (had she been human) might have been the milk of human kindness.
No Kind of Hero