The Laelaps ran so fast that it only left a paw print on every seventh wave. The foam crests were all the grip its claws needed. It drew no breath, for the wind streamed in at its nostrils with the sheer speed. It did not think because, when it was hunting, instinct swelled inside it and left no room for thought.
Not until it came across Heracles sleeping in the midday sun did Laelaps stop and snatch a longed-for drink from a toppled jug of water. Thought caught up.
Trapped in a body of stone, the Laelaps had done far too much thinking - had given it up, finally, in favour of day-dreaming. But Laelaps was not stupid. This was the man it had been sent to fetch: everyone knew Heracles when they saw him. Laelaps sniffed the sleeping Hero.
Smelled traces of Hylas and of other armour-bearers before him;
smelled every one of the sweaty Argonauts;
smelled the scent of a thousand lovers and the filthy stench of the Augean Stables; smelled the smoke of battle and of falling buildings razed to the ground by the Hero’s massive club. But above all Laelaps smelled blood.
The blood of monsters. For a start, the man’s head was resting on the skin of the Nemean Lion. Here lay the man who had sworn to rid the world of monsters.
Heracles stirred in his sleep and brushed away a fly without waking.
Laelaps thought. He thought of the O’s who had minted him, like a piece of money, and handed him over to mortal tyrants and huntsmen. He thought of Monstro and the female creatures who had gone to such pains to lug a stone dog into the shelter of its passageways. He thought of the Stamphilian cranes lacerated by Heracles, limping home to die. He pictured Hylas - Typhon’s Lucky Boy - carried off trophy-like, in Heracles’ muscly arms, back to a life of war, pillage and slaying monsters.
Laelaps drank from the jug again. That too smelled faintly of Hylas: that boy who had spoken the command: Find Heracles. Fetch Heracles. Instinct swelled again inside the Laelaps’ ribs, painful, irresistible, undeniable… He must obey. But first he would drink.
Heracles was woken by the sound of a dog lapping. It was a very ordinary salt-stained, hefty, brindled hound - nothing remarkable. But the jug was one Hylas had used to fetch water morning and night, and it offended Heracles to see a dog dirtying something Hylas had held. He snatched up his trusty club.
But when Heracles swung it, the wood met with empty air. The dog had vanished. He did not see it run – would have thought he had dreamt the beast, but for the paw prints beside the empty water jug.
[Meanwhile, on the little islet of Atlantis, Panacea has had an idea how the monsters can lay hands on Neptune’s treasure-horde to pay the pirate the ransom they are asking.]
Brass Man Talos gathered the bait. Standing up to his chest in the sea, he heated up the water until fish jumped in astonishment through the sun-bright surface and into the wicker coracle. The first batch disappeared down the gullets of the giants (who always got hungry when they were upset). The second catch, though, was put aboard a little Atlantian fishing boat and carried out to sea; beyond the turquoise shallows, beyond the clear green water hairy with weed.
Only Xyno and Panacea were meant to be on board, though the Blob somehow gummed itself to the hull and the horse Xanthus tried clumsily to clamber in at the last moment. Its front hooves clumped loudly against the wooden hull while its back hooves sank into the sand, and it took two cyclopses to persuade it ashore again.
The stallion Balius barged his friend in the flank and told him he was a fool. “What are you now, a seahorse?” he demanded. Mute Xanthus of course said nothing, but his purple-brown eyes filled with tears as the boat pitched away through the surf. He could not help being in love with Panacea, not since treading on one of Eros’s arrows in bare feet.
At first only mackerel took the bait. Then a breeze filled the little sail and the boat picked up speed, pleating the water into a bow wave. A dolphin appeared as if from nowhere, and leapt alongside the prow. Panacea bribed it to stay close with more of the silvery fish – then with a fish she had marinated specially, in a green deliciousness of herbs.
“All this fish-feeding. Woffor?” asked Xyno tetchily.
Panacea had not explained her plan. He was not anticipating magic – had no reason to: he had never once been present when Panacea worked her unique line in medicine. When the dolphin ate the herby fish, lapsed into unconsciousness, and floated belly-up beside the boat, Xyno could barely be bothered to help heave it aboard.
Panacea dressed the dolphin like a salad, her oils a little rancid in the heat, the garlic too pungent for Xyno who preferred his food plain. She dressed it quickly, one eye on the gaping gills: out of water, the dolphin would quickly drowning. Xyno, meanwhile, felt time wasting - “Woffor? Woffor?” - and flung himself down in the stern …only to find he had sat on the Blob. He tried to peel it off his thigh but it gripped so hard to his leg hair that he could not. When he finally detached the white goo and dropped it into the bilges, he looked up - and there was a man lying where the dolphin had just been. Unbelievable!
Instead of gills straining after water, a mouth was coughing up brine and raw fish. Where, a moment before, half the boat had been filled with a slab of sleek, creamy muscle, now a puny, naked, four-limbed creature lay, ribs like a lobster pot, face like an oily rag. Unbelievable!
“How? How?” yelped Xyno, both terrified and amazed by Panacea’s magical powers.
The pirate rolled himself into a ball, panic stricken, cold, robbed of his modesty along with his silver armour of muscle and blubber.
“What is your name?” Panacea asked him.
The man tried to muster a rattle of clicks from the gills he no longer had, and only managed a kind of gargle. The first phrase that came back to him in human speech:
– “Slit me wide!” –
was the last thing he had said some god’s magic turned the ocean to wine, and he jumped overboard to sup it.
“Well, Slit,” said Panacea. “I am sorry to speak bluntly, but do you know where we can find Poseidon’s treasure? We would never ask it, but there are two lives at stake.” The pirate shivered in the grip of a hangover begun thirty years before. He did not answer.
Xyno crouched down and sank his teeth into the pirate’s thigh. It still tasted slightly fishy. “Spill,” he snarled.
But neither politeness nor pain could persuade Slit-me-Wide to tell them what they wanted to know. Wrapping his arms over his head, he cradled the brains which, moments before, had teemed with instinct and dolphin wisdom. “I knew. I did know!” he wailed. “I knew just now – Get him off me! – Now it’s …different…”
As a dolphin, Slit-me-Wide had been able to hear a ship’s hatch slamming ten leagues away; had felt the magnetic force of the earth, the pull of the moon, seen lay-lines among the stars. But now he was a man again and as bright as mud. He could remember how, moments earlier, he had been playing with the mermaids. Beyond that - nothing. A dolphin’s memory is vast and particular. An alcoholic pirate has only a kind of quicksand between his ears.
It was Panacea’s turn to fret. “If I were to turn you back…”
“Yeah! Turn me back!” urged the pirate scrambling to his knees. “Then I’ll know again! Then I’ll steer youz!” Xyno gave a snort of disbelief. Panacea was readier to trust Slit’s word, but the troubling facts remained: as a man he did not know anything; as a dolphin he was powerless to tell what he knew. She covered her face with both hands.
Just then, curiosity fetched to the boat the mermaids. They began to rock the boat violently – firstly to see into it better, puzzled by the absence of dolphin, and then for the fun of hearing the passengers squeal.
Not Xyno. Even caught off balance and rolling in the bilges, he barked with triumphant glee. “Hylas!” he shouted out, between bruises. “In Crete! Pretty boy, Hylas. Remember, ladies? In Polyxo’s prison. Remember? Like to see ‘im, would you? Would yuh? You know you would!”
The mermaids grew even more excitable. These were not the same nymphs, of course, who had been caged up in the Collector’s ark. But they knew the name of Hylas as well as if they were. Sea nymphs chatter incessantly – most of all about handsome young men and Love. These days they talked of little else but Hylas, beautiful Hylas, handsome, doe-eyed Hylas, soft-skinned, fork-legged, curly Hylas. Those who had not seen him almost believed they had, they had heard him described so often.
“Be nice. Be twice nice,” purred Xyno, and the rocking boat steadied and seven blue-green faces gazed in over the gunwale. “My master Hylas has sent me on a mission. Boat ride, Xyno, says he. To find a bride, Xyno, says he. Those mergirls prised my oyster heart clean open,’ says he. ‘Mermaids, Xyno,’ he says. ‘Gotta have one’.”
The mermaids screeched – ear-splittingly high. Their blank faces showed nothing, but their eyes were ablaze with rapture.
Xyno laid a sodden mitten to his mouth. “Keep it hush, though. Keep secret.”
Each mermaid put a finger to her pouting lips.
“My master Hylas has hopes. Hopes to elope. With you – or you – or maybe you, sister! Listen…” He bent his head closer to theirs and whispered: “Me, I says to him, Master, but master, Poseidon won’t pay a dowry – not to any mortal boy, he won’t! Poseidon won’t part with one pearl from his treasure chests to buy his maids a happy ending. So Hylas has this good idea: Set them a test, Xyno. I’ll marry the maid who dares steal herself the best dowry! …Keep it secret, mind. Don’t tell a soul!”
These last words Xyno had to bark out over the water: the shoal had already scattered into darting shadows beneath the sea. Xyno watched them go with a grin so broad that his tongue tumbled out of his mouth and hung down the side of his chin. There is nothing so sure in Nature: mermaids cannot keep a secret from one another, any more than a mortal can keep in a sneeze.
From shore to shore, word was spilling now like bubbles: that beautiful Hylas was in search of a mer-bride. And that whoever brought the best dowry to the pirate ship Trambelus, would win the heart of the loveliest boy in the world.
Panacea thanked him over and over again. Clever, forgiving little Xyno! Even after Monstro had shunned him - left him behind - this little chap had toiled after them in his little coracle. Now he was doing everything in his power to rescue Hylas and Thoősa from the clutches of pirates.
She tried to turn Slit-me-Wide back into a dolphin, but had too few ingredients for the marinade. There seemed no choice but to take him along. But in his fear, the pirate slipped overboard again and swam away. If he thought his friends the mermaids would help him to dry land, he was in for a disappointment: there was not a single sea nymph left, for miles around.