Hylas had all the virtues of a good squire. He was polite, presentable, kept out from under people’s feet, did not draw attention to himself, and he could cook. He knew to offer Heracles meat at sunset but only barley-cakes at noon and never to serve him wine. The other Argonauts were even now broaching a clay tub of wine, but of course Heracles did not drink alcohol, never drank it, had never drunk… well only that one, never-to-be-spoken-of time. So Hylas lit a cooking fire, checked the ground for ants’ nests, piled up leaves for the hero to rest on, and fetched two jugs from the ship. The river water was brackish and undrinkable, so he set off to find a freshwater spring.
Behind him, he could hear the stories beginning. The Argonauts were pooling memories, pulling the latest story straight between them. One thing they would all agree on: the joy of the fight. Hylas’ mouth ran dry again just remembering.
It was no distance to the spring. At first he watched out for six-armed giants or lurking snakes or Hydra… but the woods were so sun-dappled and stippled with flowers that such things seemed fantastical. He could hear Heracles’ axe at work already, chopping down a pine tree to fashion into an oar. The tree tops were full of woodpeckers, felling timber of their own on a tiny scale. He could hear them but, try as he might, could not spot a single one among the branches. A boy could lose himself in such a place. Such a beautiful place. All he had to do was keep walking – not go back to the camp. Just walk on and on until all those invisible threads broke: duty, friendship, obligation, gratitude. If he walked far enough – snap! – and there he would be: not an Argonaut or an armour bearer, not a trainee hero, not Heracles’ special boy – just Hylas. On his own. Alone. Free to be a coward; free not to go on a single adventure or quest ever again. He looked down at the jug in his hand. He should at least fetch his master a last jug of water. Shouldn’t he?
He was trying so hard to decide that he almost stumbled into a pool.
Pegae Spring was clear and deep, its water delicious out of a cupped hand. The brink was muddy, though, so Hylas lay on his stomach and reached out as far as possible, rather than scoop up dirty water. There was movement - must be fish – and weed streaming, which was strange in a spring pool. A reflection mirrored his face too… except that his hair seemed to have grown awfully long and swirling.
Then a hand closed over his wrist – a small, cold, wet, slightly wrinkled hand. He tried to wriggle backwards, but the mud was slippery, the fingers round his wrist held very tight. He tried to prise them open with his other hand, but it was a stupid mistake. More fingers, more hands reached out of the water and closed around both wrists, his elbows, his hair, his neck. The water shoaled with pale faces: not pondweed, but tresses and hanks of hair billowing about the skin of his arms. Hylas arched his back and screamed: “HELP ME!”
Then the water engulfed his chest, his chin, his face, and everything was water.
Heracles had hacked most of the branches off the pine tree’s trunk and was carrying it back towards the camp when Polydectes came running, sandals skidding on the moss. “Hylas! It’s Hylas!” Heracles dropped the tree with a thud that set a hundred woodpeckers rattling off their roosts. Polydectes leaned on his knees, breathless, avoiding Heracles eyes. “Heard him shout! Shout for help! I ran… a spring… found the jug… Not a sign.” He led the way back to Pegae Spring, pointed out the single jug lying on its side.
There was no evidence of a struggle. No blood. The peaceful, welling swash of the pool put tragedy out of the question: it was not deep enough for a boy to drown – barely as deep as the hollow in the back of a shield.
“Hylas? Hylas!” bawled Heracles, his voice making the trees shudder, berries drop from their stalks. “Where are you, boy? Cry out!”
For an hour - for three - he ran the length of the wood and beyond, calling. Night itself could not smother the noise. - “Hylas! Hylas!” - It woke people in the seven villages of Mysia and fetched them out of their beds, mattocks and sheep-crooks in their hands, fearing attack.
Heracles was a more desperate sight than cattle-raiders, one hand in his hair, one gripping his club, bawling at them to “Find Hylas! Find him! …a little boy - eleven years. A boy!” Behind him trailed two dozen over-muscled men calling to him to call off the search until morning.
The locals were willing enough to join help look: a lost child is a terrible thing in any wood or clearing of the world. They had heard tell of the Mighty Heracles, too, of course. Everyone has. They had just never expected him to burst into their lives like a runaway bull, waking their babies and frightening the goats. They willingly joined in the general chorus of shouting: “HYLAS! HYLAS!” and kept it up till morning.
But they found nothing. Trappers’ nets, birds’ eggs, wild pears. But no boy. The skulls of foxes, the sets of badger, balls of hedgehog sharp as fright. But no boy.
Jason began glancing over his shoulder, anxious to get back to the ship. Heracles meanwhile was rounding up children. At every house he called them to him, until he was festooned with children, little ones on his shoulders, in his arms, while the older ones hopped and jumped along behind, trying to stretch their strides to the length of his. At the last village, he put the children in the largest of the huts.
”No one stops looking until my boy is found,” he told their parents, piling brushwood roof high around the hut. “Hylas! Hylas!” And away he went again, kicking up the undergrowth, shaking the branches of the trees as if Hylas might come tumbling out of them, a windfall.
Jason felt the reins of leadership slipping through his hands. He was leader of the Argonauts; he was captain of the Argo. Somewhere, on another shore of another sea, a golden fleece hung from a tree waiting to be claimed, and his fingers itched for it. Fame and lives depended on the quest of the Golden Fleece.
“Enough!” he said, after three days more. “The boy’s lost, Heracles. Bears ate him. Or he fell into a river. Maybe he just ran off: there is no telling with boys. I know how fond you… we all were, but… Leave it. The Quest cannot wait. TheArgo sets sail at dawn.”
The rest of the crew drew back. They had seen Heracles when someone tried to thwart him. Some called it temper, some madness; either way, people got killed. The day he had turned up and volunteered to join the crew, Heracles could have taken the Quest clean out of Jason’s hands and no one would have dared to gainsay him.
“Two more days,” said Heracles. “Two more!”
“Let the hostages go, Heracles. Give it up.”
“But this is Hylas we are talking about! My little Hylas! You know how I love that boy! Please, Jason! One more day!”
The Argonauts scuffed their feet. This was worse. They understood fist fights, violence. But to see the Mighty Heracles kneeling, pleading, weeping: it was not the stuff of legend. Tears are for women and old men.
“The Argo sails at dawn,” said Jason. “Let’s get some provisions aboard.”
At a greater distance still, the peasants of Mysia stood in silence, watching to see if Fate would give them back their children. They trotted behind the Argonauts back to the beach – even carried their armour and water jugs.
“I’m not leaving,” said Heracles implacably. “I won’t give up till I find him.”
Some said Jason did not try hard enough to persuade him. The crew were split between those who wanted to stay and search, those who wanted to be on their way. No one supposed for one moment that Heracles would relent and give up looking.
So that is where they parted company; the Great Adventure and the Great Adventurer. As the rowers leaned to their oars and the Argo drew away downriver towards the sea, Heracles was left on the shore. He did not watch them go: he had already turned back towards the wood - “Hylas? Hylas! Where are you, boy? Well? What are you people staring at? Keep searching or I’ll light that brushwood!”
Only the woods held their peace. The woodpeckers had stopped knocking their thick skulls against the unforgiving trees. They and the trees had watched, unmoved, the Argonauts come and go: a wave of Legend washing ashore and then out again to sea.